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Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of the name “RoShamBo” for the rock-paper-scissors game? — Frances.

Really? No kidding. Live and learn. I had honestly never heard it called that. Then again, rock-paper-scissors is one of those games I’m not very good at. I tend to get stuck on “rock” and lose right away. Come to think of it, I’m really not very good at any game that involves hand-waving and the like. I’m the only person I know who’s actually been injured in a game of patty-cake.

According to Wikipedia (motto: “We Am Frequently Correct”), rock-paper-scissors (which I will henceforth call “RPS” to save my sanity) dates back to the Han Dynasty in China (206 B.C.) and is now played everywhere on earth. For the benefit of all you non-earthlings, the Oxford English Dictionary definition is fairly succinct: “A game (used especially to settle petty disputes or as a tiebreaker) in which, at an agreed signal, each participant makes a gesture with one hand representing either a rock, paper, or a pair of scissors, the winner being determined according to an established scheme,” which is usually “rock blunts (beats) scissors, scissors cut paper, paper wraps rock.” There is almost always a three-syllable counting phrase (or just “one, two, three”) chanted during the game, which consists of two warm-up feints and then a third swing of the arm when your choice of R, P or S is displayed. I’m sure there are at least three million YouTube videos demonstrating how it’s done.

There is, interestingly, a World RPS Society, whose website ( offers all sorts of tips on strategy, variants, and the history of the game. The World RPS Society was founded in London in 1842 as the Paper Scissors Stone Club shortly after a law was passed in England declaring an RPS match “between two gentleman acting in good faith” to be a legally binding contract.
In your question you refer to “RoShamBo,” capitalized in such a way as to imply that it’s a sort of acronym for something, but apparently it isn’t, and it’s usually just written “roshambo.” There are two leading theories about the origin of the word.

The simpler of the two theories ties “roshambo” to the Japanese name for the game, “janken,” and to the three-syllable phrase chanted during the game, “Jan-ken-pon” or “Jan-ken-poh.” The Chinese regional dialect version of the name, “jiang jun bo,” may also figure in this theory. If one of these two was the source of “roshambo,” it was probably via a misunderstanding and later modification of the term by English-speakers who didn’t speak either Japanese or Chinese. The phonological change needed to get from the Japanese or Chinese terms to “roshambo” would not necessarily be too long a stretch in such a case. After all, we managed to turn the Mexican Spanish “vaquero” (cowboy) into “buckaroo.”

The other theory about “roshambo” suggests an origin a bit closer to home for those of us in the US. “Roshambo,” goes this theory, is a phonetic form of the French “Rochambeau,” specifically as found in the name of Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau (1725–1807). Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur was a general in the French army, best remembered for commanding a force sent to help George Washington’s troops during the American Revolution. According to this theory, RPS was associated with Jean-Baptiste in some fashion, and he (or his soldiers) may have introduced the game to the American colonists, who may have tacked his name onto it in tribute. Or something like that. For a theory, this one is very hazy, but not impossible.

Intriguingly, the first known use of “roshambo” in print was actually in the form “Ro-cham-beau,” which would seem to lend credence to the Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur theory. Unfortunately, that first known use was in 1936, more than a century after Jean-Baptiste’s death, which raises the question of why it took so long for the gratitude of the colonists to manifest itself.

Fortunately, I have my own theory. It’s not much of a theory, and I have absolutely no evidence for it, so caveat lector. My theory is that “roshambo” has nothing to do with anything Jean-Baptiste Yadda Yadda, Comte de Rochambeau did or did not do regarding RPS. I think it came about because American History courses taught to schoolchildren in the 19th and early 20th centuries almost certainly required them to learn about Jean-Baptiste and to memorize his name. When, during recess, the children then used RPS to settle a dispute, the ornate three-syllable name “Ro-cham-beau” would have been on their little minds and thus a natural for a counting chant during the game. They could as easily have chanted “Wash-ing-ton,” of course, but “Ro-cham-beau” actually sounds like an exotic magic incantation. And “roshambo” is a lot easier to say than “rock-paper-scissors.”

9 comments to Roshambo

  • Alex Brant-Zawadzki

    Seems logical to me that Rochambeau could take that long to be used enough to designate an arbitrary “first known use”.

    You yourself said you hadn’t heard RPS referred to as Ro Sham Bo, and information is a bit more readily available these days.

    I’ll bet there were also dozens of colloquialisms/idioms that were deemed too indecent or povertous to print.

  • Kayla

    Seems roshambo is primarily used in the US part of the English-speaking world. I’d never heard RPS referred to as anything but Rock Paper Scissors until very recently (an episode of Castle on DVD & in the game World of Warcraft in the past few weeks). I’ve been trying to pin down the origin of the word to no avail. The sainted Wikipedia suggests that RPS was not widely known in the USA in around 1932 so I doubt the Civil War ref is anything but an attempt to retrofit the word & give it some plausibility rather than admit they don’t know.

  • john Vonderlin

    While doing an art piece I researched this. It seems an educator who was making a book of simple games to distribute to schools some time in the late 30s generated the first known in print evidence of it. The researcher did some background checking and found this educator lived in an apartment complex in Washington D.C. that had the name and in the adjoining park a statue of Marshall Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vineur de Rochambeau, the Commander-in-Chief of the French Expeditionary Force which embarked from France in order to help the Continental Army fight against British forces. Tradition had him as the likely source of the game’s name, as Rachembeau was an alternate spelling, but no historic connection between him and the game had been established. This origin seemed very logical and is the story I attached to my piece. The history researcher who wrote the blog piece about this was very convincing.

  • K

    My father (born in the 1950s and grew up in medium sized town in the Northlands) has always referred to RPS as Rochambeau… could be because we are Franco-American ;)

    The 1930s were wrapped up in the 150th anniversary of the Revolution and colonial-revival, so I’m not surprised this was written down then!

  • JD

    excellent run-down and excellent theory!

  • Joshua

    I think the attempts to link it to the Revolutionary war officer are a kind of baseless dead end.

    Everything I’ve read on where the term originated puts it around California, specifically likely the San Francisco Bay Area. Probably not coincidentally where a large number of Japanese and Chinese immigrants settled over the past two centuries.

    One commenter suggests the author was in a DC apartment taking the name from a statue, that seems even more of a stretch than kids randomly assigning the French man’s name because he’s taught in class. Neither theory has really any historical backing (any evidence the author Ella Gardner, even did live in D.C.? She was compiling games, not inventing them, and she has also published a book “Life in Japan” so perhaps she had more first hand knowledge).

    Just to throw what I think is a better guess out there is to consider the unique circumstance of roshambo vs. every other iteration of rock-paper-scissors. It was suggested roshambo is easier to say. That is true, but everyone else still calls it “rock-paper-scissors” so that doesn’t actually explain why they would say anything at all. What’s unique is that people playing roshambo actually say aloud “ro” “sham” “bo” on 3 different moves. Rock-paper-scissors in every other form is silent.

    This little detail, the one functional variation in the game from those who call it “rock-paper-scissors” is that the Japanese also call out the name every round with a distinct three syllable patter. Jan-ken-pon! Ro-sham-bo!

    I do not think it came from the French officer. I think that’s a sort of backtracing where one hears the game being called “roshambo” and the only known spelling of that is the French way. I really liked the bit of trivia about buckaroo, I love etymology and I never heard that one, even knowing a lot of spanish I would have never put that together.

    My knowledge of languages is really English, Spanish a distant second, and then miles away Japanese from some years living in Japan and a couple courses in college.

    Aside from ro-sham-bo being close in word length to jan-ken-po there are a couple other similarities that suggest it might have been a direct transfer by school children in the early 20th century.

    -In Japanese the repetition of a consonant is often dropped for a gap in pronunciation implying a second consonant. This may be heard by a non-speaker as simply nothing at all so Jan-ken can be heard as Ja-ken. Especially in the rapid means it’s spoken.

    So there goes the n. Now you hear “ja-ken-po” to “ro-sham-bo”

    -Next, Japanese have really no auditory distinction between n and m when it completes a word, their alphabet defaults all such endings to an n equivalent. So in respect to recreating “ken “kem” would be undistinguished. Also there’s little difference between the e in ken and the a in sham, So we got jan-ken-po and ro-shen-bo.

    – Japanese bo and po are linguistically linked. They have a soft and a hard form that can be interchangeable in words. ha-ba-pa are all variations that can interchange. Just as an example, the name of Japan in Japanese is Nihon or Nippon. This gives two examples of my points here, the h->p interchangeability, and the double consonant pronunciation drop, because Nippon is not pronounced Nip-pon, it’s pronounced “Ni(the i is stressed followed by a short pause)pon” which if you say it aloud actually sort of sounds like you’re saying the consonant twice, but not exactly.

    So In Japan it’s Jan-ken-po and arguably using Japanese linguistics ro-shen-po can easily become ro-sham-bo. That still leaves how “ja” becomes “ro” or how “k” becomes “sh” but I got it mostly there.

    Combine the fact that roshambo specifically uses the 3 syllable patter unique to the Japanese Jankenpo but not seen with rock-paper-scissors, and the fact that the word for the game likely came from SF in the early 20th century, it seems to me very likely the name and the patter with the exclamation of the name came at the same time with some kind of adaptation of “jan-ken-po” becoming “ro-sham-bo” probably from Americans picking up on Japanese immigrants playing it, likely school kids. And as you said if vaquero can become buckaroo, or how Beijing can become Peking, then jan-ken-po — ro-shen-po — ro-sham-bo isn’t too far fetched.

    Here’s a video of Japanese playing their version. Notice the ritually spoken Ja-ken-po 3 part and reveal, always starting on rock. Matches the old ’36 book of games and roshambo in contrast to most versions of rock-paper-scissors which are silent.

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