Not Playing Around: A History of “Ludicrous”

Monday, May 152 min read

In his 2004 single “Get Back,” Atlanta emcee Ludacris raps, “I ain’t playing around! / Make one false move, I’ll take ya down.” He may not be playing, but the word “ludicrous” has roots in the Latin ludere, meaning “to play.”

The word “ludicrous” is defined today as “so foolish, unreasonable, or out of place as to be amusing; ridiculous.” If you’re a fan of the 1987 Mel Brooks Star Wars spoof Spaceballs, you probably recall the concept of “ludicrous speed!

However, the original meaning of “ludicrous” (“pertaining to play or sport”) is recognizable in the Latin etymology. The root lud- is seen in ludicrum, meaning “amusement, game, toy, source of amusement, joke,” and in ludicrus, meaning “sportive.” This etymological base is also evident in modern words, such as “illusion,” which refers to playing with perception; “delude,” meaning “deceive; fool”; and “collusion,” which implies multiple parties conspiring together to fool one another.

This Is Not a Joke

Though the connotations of “ludicrous” today are largely negative (for example, a news report claiming a courtroom drama is “ludicrous”), that wasn’t always the case. When it appeared in English in the 1610s with its playful definition, the usage was neutral. The word’s derogatory airs didn’t emerge until the late 18th century — as The Unexpected Evolution of Language points out: “While it’s true that games are amusements, so are jokes and tricks.”

With that, a nuance materializes — playing games is not always nice, and in fact, pranks can be unkind. In “A History of ‘Ludicrous,’” literature professor Matthew Kaiser examines this fluctuation closely; he notes that the first instance of the word in print is in 1619, in British theologian Thomas Gataker’s writing on “lots,” or “chance-taking in decision-making.” He examines the “four sortes” of lots: “divine, appointed and commanded to be used by God; diabolical, for divination, condemned of all; political, for choice of Magistrates in cases of war, tolerated by many; ludicrous, for sport and pastime, questioned by most.”

This clerical interpretation infuses the concept of playing games with morals, something that persists today with governmental oversight of gambling. As Kaiser writes, “Some 17th-century Puritans, for instance, condemn gambling and card playing as ‘ludicrous’ not because they perceive these activities as ridiculous or laughable — indeed, gaming can be deadly serious and highly complicated — but because these activities are rooted in play, the logic of ludus, rather than in truth, the word of God.”

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

The Puritanical infusion of “ludicrous” with suspect morality occurred in the 100 or so years between its neutral, playful definition and the contemporary, largely derogatory meaning, which cemented itself in the late 18th century. Kaiser points out that some of the archaic meaning is still preserved in the persona of a “playa.” “Indeed, ‘playa’ is akin to the Elizabethan ‘gamester,’ which means ‘gambler,’ ‘joker,’ … ‘bad boy.’”

Urban Dictionary largely identifies “playing” as leading someone on romantically for the purposes of instant gratification, or the act of “getting played” as one of being tricked or fooled by the “player.” There has always been a dichotomy between the player and the played, all the way back to the mid-18th century. However, as the definition of “ludicrous” has shifted from one of sport to one of deception, the idea of “playing around” doesn’t seem so nice, either.

With that, the idea of a player, toying with people’s emotions, seems quite ludicrous indeed.

Featured image credit: Talaj/ iStock

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