Where did Rock, Paper, Scissors come from? The answer involves a Japanese game called jan-ken but probably does not involve Celtic settlers in Portugal and the French general who aided George Washington during the Revolutionary War.
First, let’s clear something up—“rock, paper, scissors, shoot” or “rock, paper, scissors”? “Rock, paper, scissors,” or “paper, rock, scissors?” Best two out of three? How do we agree on the rules? Maybe we could decide with a tiebreaker, a hand game of sorts . . .
Sansukumi-Ken: The Origin of Rock, Paper, Scissors
The first known reference to a game using finger signs is a painting on a tomb wall in Egypt dating to 2000 BCE. A precursor to Rock, Paper, Scissors using three distinct hand gestures was first played in China during the Han dynasty, around 200 BCE. The game was called shoushiling, according to Xie Zhaozhiin his book Wuzazu, written in the 1600s.
This game was then introduced to Japan, spurring an entire genre of hand games known as sansukumi-ken. This translates to “the ken (fists) of three who are afraid of one another,” in reference to three hand gestures used in the games where A beats B, B beats C, and C beats A. These hand games were often coupled with drinking and were sometimes played in brothels. One speech made in 1809 recounts a ken tournament in Nagasaki’s red-light district with feasting and dancing. At some point, these games shed their association with drinking, stripping, and prostitution and began to be played by children.
The earliest recorded sansukumi-ken game was known as mushi-ken. This game involved three gestures: the frog (the thumb), the slug (the pinky finger), and the snake (the index finger). The frog defeats the slug, which defeats the snake, which defeats the frog. Another popular version called kitsune-ken featured a supernatural fox (kitsune) well-known in Japanese mythology, who defeats the village head, who defeats the hunter, who defeats the fox.
So the game could have called “Frog, Snake, Slug” instead—or maybe “Foxhunt.”
The most common version today is called an-ken and features rock, paper, and scissors. This variation developed in the nineteenth century and spread beyond East Asia for the first time in the early twentieth century. Sepp Linhart, author of “From Kendo to Jan-Ken: The Deterioration of a Game from Exoticism into Ordinariness” indicates that the global appeal of the an-ken version of the game stems from its use of simple, ordinary objects that were familiar to a wide audience.
Through increased contact between the East and the West, sansukumi-ken games from Japan were introduced in England, Australia, the United States, and France. Newspaper articles and letters in the 1920s and 1930s described the game as a method of casting lots, gambling, or settling disputes, going into detail about the specifics of the game for those who were yet unfamiliar with it. The game was also known as “zhot” or “jan-ken-pon.”
There are other potential sources of Rock, Paper, Scissors since there are similar games found in cultures around the world, and internet legends abound. According to the Straight Dope, some have purported that the hand game made its way into common knowledge by way of a Celtic tribe that settled in Portugal in the sixth century BCE. The game spread throughout Portugal in following centuries. Pihedra, Papelsh e Tijhera, as the game is now called in Portuguese, spread further due to the Roman invasion of the Spanish Peninsula and subsequent intercultural contact. However, the game was seen as a potential threat to Roman rule and was suppressed in the British Isles until 350 CE. This explanation lacks any real evidence, but it’s just one example of a potential parallels across cultures. The hand game played today in many countries around the world was most likely spread from Japan rather than from similar hand games found among the Celts or any other group of people.
Why is Rock, Paper, Scissors sometimes called roshambo? For some unknown reason, the game became associated with Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, who commanded the French Expeditionary Force sent to help the United States during the Revolutionary War. His name was used as a code word during the battle of Yorktown, in which the British army surrendered to the United States. Since Rock, Paper, Scissors was not widely known in the West in the eighteenth century, there is little basis for Rochambeau knowing or using Rock, Paper, Scissors to settle a dispute. Additionally, the earliest known use of “roshambo” is from 1936 in a book called Handbook for Recreation Leaders.
Linguist and language commentator Ben Zimmer hypothesizes that children in the San Francisco Bay Area (an area home to many East Asian immigrants) in the 1930s may have combined their knowledge of the defeat of the British at Yorktown, which they had learned about in school, with the new, popular hand game in which they tried to defeat their opponents or settle disputes. The name of the famous general was Americanized and became roshambo. (Anyone up for a game of roshambo? Who wants to be the British?)
And just for fun, here are some other variations on Rock, Paper, Scissors:
- Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock (United States)
- Ant, Human, Elephant (Indonesia)
- Tiger, Village Chief, Village Chief’s Mother (Japan)
- Bird, Water, Stone (Malaysia)
- Muk-zzi-ppa, where the goal is to get your opponent to play the same sign as you (Korea)
Carlisle, Rodney P. Encyclopedia of Play in Today’s Society. Newbury Park, California: SAGE Publications, 2009, p. 603.
Ferro, Shaunacy. “Why Do People Call Rock-Paper-Scissors ‘Roshambo?’” Mental Floss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/80201/why-do-people-call-rock-paper-scissors-roshambo.
Schwab, Katharine. “A Cultural History of Rock-Paper-Scissors.” The Atlantic, December 23, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/12/how-rock-paper-scissors-went-viral/418455/.
Straight Dope Staff. “What’s the Origin of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’?” The Straight Dope, July 10, 2001. https://www.straightdope.com/21343076/what-s-the-origin-of-rock-paper-scissors.
Wikipedia. “Rock Paper Scissors.” Retrieved March 11, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_paper_scissors#:~:text=A%20beats%20B%2C%20B%20beats,was%20imported%20directly%20from%20China.
Wikipedia. “Sansumi-ken.” Retrieved March 11, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sansukumi-ken.
World Rock Paper Scissors Association. “The Official History of Rock Paper Scissors.” Retrieved March 11, 2021, from https://www.wrpsa.com/the-official-history-of-rock-paper-scissors/.