foul play

It struck me the other day that "foul play" is an odd sort of euphemism for murder. "Play"? What kind of play?

The Phrase Finder says Shakespeare probably coined the phrase and used it to mean "unfair behavior." (A search at RhymeZone Shakespeare seems to confirm that that was basically what he meant by it.) That seems plausible enough; I can imagine someone taking this common phrase and sort of jokingly and understatingly using it to refer to murder.

Except that MW11 defines it as "violence; especially: murder" and dates it to the 15th century, at least a hundred years before Shakespeare. Then again, MW3 (unabridged) says "unfair, dishonest, or treacherous conduct or dealing; specifically: violence."

Also, MW11 notes that "play" can mean "swordplay."

Anyway, I'm left without an answer to my question. I'm specifically wondering when and how "foul play" came to refer specifically to murder, as in "he met with foul play" or "there was no evidence of foul play." It's a phrase I associate with murder mysteries and detective stories; could it have entered popular use in this context via Arthur Conan Doyle? Agatha Christie? I don't know.

I suppose it could have started with the line from Pericles: "She died by foul play." But now I'm just guessing. Anyone know for sure?

5 Responses to “foul play”

  1. Kaitlyn Wierzchowski

    You failed to mention the other use of the phrase “foul play” which is action outside of the rules, or bending the “fairness” of conduct. (It is “foul” rather than “fair”). Murder is clearly one of the biggest bending of the rules because it is highly illegal and a very dramatic solution to a problem!

    ‘Foul play’ is a 16th century idiom. Nowadays we often use this phrase in regard to ‘fouls’ that are committed in sports, i.e. actions which are outside the particular sports’ rules. This is itself quite an old usage. For example, from boxing – The Sporting Magazine, 1797:

    “His antagonist having struck him two foul blows.”

    … and from billiards – The Field, January 1882:

    “Thus, at billiards, if a player makes a foul stroke and scores, his adversary has the option of not enforcing the penalty.”

    These were preceded by Shakespeare’s use, and probably his coinage, of the phrase in a non-sporting context, simply to mean ‘unfair behaviour’.

    • Jed

      Thanks for the comment, Kaitlyn.

      I actually don’t see people use the phrase “foul play” to refer to playing outside the rules. The word “foul,” yes, certainly; all of your examples use the word “foul” in common and familiar ways. But the phrase “foul play” doesn’t appear in any of your examples.

      The page that you linked to is the same page that I linked to in my entry. As I pointed out in my entry, the phrase “foul play” predates Shakespeare by at least a century, so it’s unlikely that he coined it. So the page (a) states that “foul play” is used to refer to fouls but doesn’t give any evidence of that; (b) gives examples that don’t actually use the phrase in question; and (c) mistakenly asserts Shakespearian origin. It’s enough to make me dubious about

  2. Kaitlyn Wierzchowski

    Sorry if you find my findings insufficient. It seems that you and I use many of the same sources, and your blog actually shows up on a lot of my word etymology searches, also. Kudos to you for that! I think in some cases it is still best to turn to books for reliable information – but I’m just old fashioned about that…and admitedly I don’t know much about sports so I didn’t notice the “foul” and “foul play” difference until you pointed it out.

    Thanks for keeping me honest.

  3. Shmuel

    For whatever it’s worth, OED has two definitions for the phrase.

    The first, under “foul”, is: “b.A.III.14.b esp. in foul play: unfair conduct in a game; transf. unfair or treacherous dealing, often with the additional notion of roughness or violence… So also foul player.”

    The second, under “play”, goes like this: “12.II.12 In phrases fair play, foul play: rarely lit. (in sense 10); usually fig. (in sense 9) action, conduct, dealing… So false play, treacherous dealing (obs.). while the play is good (Sc.), before the situation becomes serious, dangerous, or unpleasant.”

    The oldest citation given is well before Shakespeare: “c 1440 Gesta Rom. lx. 248 (Harl. MS.) Tristing‥that the lion wolde have I-made a foule pleye withe þe lorde & withe þe lady.”

    On the other hand, they provide a number of citations in the sporting context. The last couple of those: “1814 Sporting Mag. XLIV. 241 After the fifteenth round ‘Foul play!’ was loudly called. 1825 Lytton Zicci 5 There can be no foul play at the public tables.”

    (As ever, the OED is more useful for historical than contemporary usage.)

  4. Kaitlyn Wierzchowski

    I really need to get ahold of an OED! The only book dictionary I have doesn’t even include most of the words I’m interested in!


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