I ran across the word spillikins today (in Virginia Woolf, who spelled it with one l); unfamiliar with it, I looked it up to find it defined as “the game of jackstraws.” This too was unfamiliar, but the way it was defined (“A game played with a pile of straws or thin sticks, with the players attempting in turn to remove a single stick without disturbing the others”) made it clear that both words referred to the game my wife and I know as pick-up sticks. I was glad to see Wikipedia has it under that familiar name, and interested to see that the only other-language articles listed in the left-hand column were for Spanish (palitos chinos), Hebrew (דוקים), Polish (bierki), Russian (бирюльки), and Swedish (plockepinn). I presume there are plenty of other language communities that play this simple and absorbing game; do you know of the words in any of them? And if your native language is English, what name do you know the game by?


  1. Mikado is what we call it around here.

  2. I learned the game as pick-up sticks, because we had a commercially produced set of pick-up sticks, and that’s what it said on the box. (USA, late 1960s.) Like jacks (onesies, knucklebones, etc.), it was a game that stopped being fun for me around the age of 8.
    At some point in my latter childhood, I remember encountering the word jackstraws in some old story or other I was reading, and looking it up to discover that it was just pick-up sticks. Since then, I sort of vaguely assumed that pick-up sticks was a genericised trademark for an earlier game called jackstraws, much like Chinese Checkers is a genericised trademark for earlier games.
    Wikipedia is a bit of a mess. If you search for “jackstraws,” you get redirected to the pick-up sticks page, with no mention of any other names for the game. But the talk page mentions merging the article with “Mikado (game),” which turns out to be (according to Wikipedia) a commercial version of the game originating in Hungary. However, that article appears to be translated from something else, and the Hungarian connection might be spurious.
    That article mentions Chien Tung, which in turn redirects to an article called “Kau Cim,” which mentions a Japanese (!) game called Mikado, which redirects to the Hungarian (or is it?) version of the game.
    At the same time we played pick-up sticks, we also had a set of “Chinese fortune-telling sticks,” which I never connected to pick-up sticks until just now. We just played with it (not often — it wasn’t very fun) like you’d play with a Magic 8-Ball or Ouija board.
    The German Wikipedia article on Mikado has a more complete list of names in several languages, including spillikins and and jackstraws.
    Spanish Wikipedia redirects from Mikado to palitos chinos, and also give palillos as an alternate name. They connect to an earlier game called bastoncillos, which they describe as having markings at the ends similar to playing cards.
    So, it would appear that Mikado is a more useful search term for this game, and the pick-up sticks article should probably not have been split off so hastily.
    Anyway, I’m going to stop now, because you’re undoubtedly better qualified than I am to do a multi-lingual, cognate-based Wikipedia browse. but it would seem that there’s a lot of little bits of information out there scattered across many languages.

  3. marie-lucie says

    In France it is “Mikado” also. It is decades since I last played Mikado.
    In the German Wikipedia article (thanks HP), the French name is jonchets. The word seems vaguely familiar, I probably encountered it years ago as one of the old-fashioned games children played in 19th century stories, but I never knew or cared what it actually referred to. Jonchet is a diminutive of jonc ‘reed’, and the small, thin sticks may have originally been cut from reeds. There is also the transitive verb joncher which refers to what randomly lying straw, hay, reeds, flowers or similar items “do” to the ground or floor (“bestrew” could be an equivalent). So the game called les jonchets is probably the French equivalent of “jackstraws”.
    Stick games with marked sticks (but fewer, thicker ones) were also traditionally played in many Native American communities, as well as in some parts of Asia.

  4. Mikado here too, but I see noöne has bothered to make a Danish wiki article. Here’s a more ‘official’ one that doesn’t contribute much new.
    Though the last sentence talks about a similar old Danish game that I’ve never heard of, myself. “Scratch nose” played with small wooden models of tools. (Presumably pitchforks, spades and that sorta thing.)
    And here is a description of that game used as a simile for our municipal reform a coupla years back. My guess was right and the name supposedly comes from the punishment for losing one’s turn: one gets scratched on the nose with the stick looking like a rake.
    The more you know …

  5. Though The Dictionary of the Danish Language sez the saw was used for that purpose, so either the commentator was wrong, or grew up playing a variant.

  6. I think the one I had was sold as Chinese Chopsticks.

  7. Pick-up sticks it has always been for me, and most other native NZE speakers, I’m sure.

  8. I remember the word “spillikins”: rural Lowlands, 1950s.

  9. Wikipedia is a bit of a mess.
    No kidding! I’m far too busy with my copyediting to try to bring order, but I hope some patient Wikipedian will improve the situation.

  10. pega-vareta or pega-palito in my Brazilian childhood. pretty much “pick-up sticks”.

  11. marie-lucie: There is also the transitive verb joncher which refers to what randomly lying straw, hay, reeds, flowers or similar items “do” to the ground or floor (“bestrew” could be an equivalent).
    My first thought was that this description of joncher – as what randomly laying things “do” to the ground or floor – is rather strange, since I think of joncher and parsemer both as “strew” or “scatter”. The participles jonchés and parsemés are what I encounter most often, though, and I think of the things as having have been scattered by a person.
    My handy little Dictionnaire des Synonymes (H. Bénac, 1956) treats both words under recouvrir, saying of joncher:

    parsemer de jonc, de feuillages pour une cérémonie; par ext. couvrir d’un grand nombre de choses, éparpillées au hasard, souvent tombées, et jamais fixées

    There immediately follows the big surprise, in the form of a sentence by Camus:

    Une dizaine de rats morts jonchaient l’escalier.

    This is telling us that the rats s’arrangeaient pour mikado by dying at random locations, and were not scattered by a granny with an unusual taste in decor.
    One could say the rats “strewed the staircase”, but “bestrewed” would sound pretty old-fashioned to me, and anyway I would tend to say “were strewn over the staircase”.
    My Bénac is a joy forever. I just checked to see why éparpiller was not in there with joncher and parsemer. The entry refers me to disperser. So now I have a good working idea of how to use these 3-4 words to make precise distinctions.

  12. Instead of “scattered by a person”, read “scattered by an agent, such as a person or the wind”.

  13. “Littered the staircase”?

  14. Jackstraws when I was a child (UK 1960s). I have heard spillikins (presumably related to spills as long thin pieces of wood used as tapers). Pick-up-Sticks was a commercial name for the same game and introduced things like different coloured ends to the sticks IIRC

  15. I know it as pick-up sticks too.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    My daughters play this when they visit their maternal grandparents, with a 1960’s vintage set (stored in a cardboard cylinder) probably similar to what HP remembers that was perhaps originally acquired when their uncle on that side was a toddler. I vaguely recall it from my own childhood of that era and was not aware of any names other than pick-up sticks (or “stix”? – the internet says that spelling actually denotes a hip new restaurant chain in California, though). Well, to be precise, my now-seven-year-old plays it; my now-ten-year-old seems to have aged out of it since prior visits to the grandparents.

  17. Pick-up-sticks in Canada, at least when I played the game in the 50s, including the hyphens. Cardboard cylinder, plastic sticks.
    The Hebrew Wiki entry mentions Mikado as the name of game in Europe, for which there’s also an English Wiki entry.

  18. Tom Recht says

    Said GKC of RLS: “If the rather vague Victorian public did not appreciate the deep and even tragic ethics with which Stevenson was concerned, still less were they of a sort to appreciate the French finish and fastidiousness of his style; in which he seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins.”

  19. Charles Perry says

    In his essay on the novel of detection, Raymond Chandler denigrated the usual (at the time) the-butler-did-it sort of mystery as “spillikins in the parlor.” A sign that part of his heart was forever England.

  20. The Swedish Wikipedia entry shows a giant example, but it’s a ‘work of art and therefore can’t be used to play’, which seems rather lame to me.
    The OED has its earliest citation for jack-straw at the beginning of the 19C.:

    2.2 One of a set of straws, or strips of ivory, bone, wood, or the like, used in a game in which they are thrown on the table in a heap, and have to be picked up singly without disturbing the rest of the heap. Also, in pl., the game thus played.
       1801 M. Edgeworth Belinda xix, ‘Mr. Percival’, said Belinda, ‘condescending to look at a game of jack-straws!’    1810 ― Early Lessons, Harry & Lucy (1829) IV. 81 Playing a game at Jack-straws, or, as some call them {spillikins}.    1845 Mrs. Browning in Lett. Mr. & Mrs. Browning (1899) I. 267, I‥have no sort of presence of mind (not so much as one would use to play at Jack straws).

    And for spillikin, slightly earlier:

    spillikin, spellican

    Forms: α. 8 spilakee, 9 spilleken, -ekin, -acan, 8– spillikin, 9 -iken, spilikin. β. 9 spel(l)ican, spelekin.
    [app. a diminutive of spill n.1]
    1. a.1.a pl. A game played with a heap of slips or small rods of wood, bone, or the like, the object being to pull off each by means of a hook without disturbing the rest.
    α    1734 Mrs. Delany Life & Corr. (1861) III. 211 Your busyness done, and you at ease To take your game at spilakees.    1800 M. Edgeworth Belinda xix, Belinda was playing with little Charles Percival at spillikins.    1864 C. M. Yonge Trial I. 173 In the nursery he was, playing at spillekens with his left hand.    1884 Punch 16 Feb. 73/2, I have heard that the Bishops play Spilikins for cups of tea.
    β    1869 F. Montgomery Misunderstood xi. 211 Eagerly waiting for his game of ‘Spelicans’.    1896 Beardsley Under the Hill (1904) 17 Spiridion‥looked up from his game of Spellicans and trembled.
    b.1.b One of the slips with which this is played.
       1883 Mrs. R. T. Ritchie Bk. Sibyls iv. 220 The spillikens lie in an even ring where she had thrown them.    1890 H. S. Hallett Thousand Miles on Elephant 251 Dead bamboos lay like spellicans cast about in every direction.
    2.2 (See quot.)
       1858 Simmonds Dict. Trade, Spillikins, pegs of wood bone or ivory, for marking the score of cribbage or other games.
    3.3 fig. In pl., Splinters; fragments. Also in sing.
       1857 Reade White Lies III. ix. 127 The shot‥knocked him into spillekins.    1886 Illustr. Lond. News 3 July 2/1, I do not want to see the British empire split into spillikins.    1907 E. Gosse Father & Son ii. 50 My nerves were a packet of spilikins.    1940 W. de la Mare Pleasures & Speculations 71 No fine shades of psychology, or ethical spellicans are here.    1945 ― Burning-Glass 44 To ponder upon a moth‥A spelican from his palm.
    4.4 attrib., as spillikin-heap, spillikin twig, etc.
       1860 Zoologist XVIII. 7060 Stepping cautiously and delicately over the spillacan twigs, like a Catholic priest in a crowded thoroughfare.    1891 V. C. Cotes Two Girls on Barge 119 Not frivolous tea in a Sévres eggshell with a spellican development of spoon.    1900 Blackw. Mag. July 57/1 We became involved in a spillikin-heap of cross⁓purposes.

  21. “Littered the staircase”?
    That’s an interesting idea. I don’t know if they all came from the same litter. I’ll have to check the context of what Camus wrote. The Mikado sticks in a set should all be made from the same piece of wood, otherwise there would be bias.

  22. As wikipedia says for Spanish, in Argentina we call the game “palitos chinos” (Chinese sticks). I used to play when I was a child and now my daughters play with their own new set.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    Would “jackstraws” for a British child evoke associations with the medieval rebel Jack Straw (and/or the Grateful Dead song with that title)?

  24. Germany is full of Mikado references. First and foremost we have the Mikado Sticks snack. These are thin sticks of biscuit drenched in chocolate except for the one end you grasp carefully with your fingertips so they don’t get sticky. Similarly, you have to grasp the sticks in the Mikado game carefully. According to this site they are called “Pocky” in Japan [ポッキー] and originated there.
    For 11 years starting in 1987 I worked for an IT company in Bonn and Skt. Augustin called micado. The name was presented officially as an abbreviation for “microcomputer ..:” something-or-other, but the real origin was a different one. As the founders told us, they were carousing one night to the sound of the pop song Mikado by the Kölsch pop band Bläck Fööss [bare feet]. The lyrics contain the line Pass op Jung, ich kann Mikado [watch out, buster, I know Mikado], as if mikado were a martial art like karate. You can hear this at about 1:40 into the youtube clip.
    The founders thought that mikado would be a cool name for their company. They only changed the “k” to “c” so that they could pretend the name has something to do with computers. Pass op, ich kann Mikado was a catch-phrase in the Kölsch-and-related-dialect areas of the Rheinland for many years.

  25. No, it would evoke associations with the former Labour MP and Home Secretary Jack Straw. I don’t know if children in England even learn about the peasants’ revolt, I certainly skipped the 1300s. I don’t know about your kids, my daughter doesn’t listen to the Dead, may not even know who* they are. There’s quite a famous pub on Hampstead Heath called Jack Straw’s Castle; I remember the London buses used to drive straight through the middle of the building, but my memory may be slightly faulty – I haven’t been there for 40 years, it’s close to where Keats lived.
    *She likes The Who ok. She’s 18, you may have to be a bit older for the Dead.

  26. In the 1960s, there was a left-wing backbench Labour MP from east London called Ian Mikado. He had nothing to do with the game or computers.

  27. Kølsch…Bläck Fööss [bare feet]
    Seriously? It looks like one of those heavy metal spellings.

  28. Well, since Germany has the “ö” and was home to the screeching-hammering style of vocal production, isn’t it the origin of heavy metal spellings ? Or was it Swedish or something else ? The German WipE on Blue Öyster Cult says the trema (the two dots) were added later.

  29. J.W. Brewer says

    My daughters are alas at the age where they get music from peers rather than parents (when the younger one was just turned six she knew all the words to that Ke$ha song with the line about “brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack” and I decided not to explore her understanding, if any, of the line’s meaning). When the older one was about two, she might have been the only toddler on the island of Manhattan familiar with the recordings of lost pub-rock legends Kilburn and the High Roads (the late Ian Dury’s first band), but those days are gone . . .

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    “Metal umlaut” is one of the awesomest wikipedia articles of all time; it claims the German band Amon Düül II had priority of usage over BOC but the usage there is arguably (because of something involving a Turkish loanword?) not gratuitous and thus may not fully qualify. And now I want to cut and paste “TECHNICIÄNS ÖF SPÅCE SHIP EÅRTH THIS IS YÖÜR CÄPTÅIN SPEÄKING YÖÜR ØÅPTÅIN IS DEA̋D” (legend from the back cover of the second Hawkwind LP – British not German but I bought my first Hawkwind record in Germany because they were so hard to find in most parts of the U.S. back then) just to see if the gratuitous diacriticals survive.

  31. Funny you should mention it, my daughter was saying the day before yesterday (the day she turned 18) that she wants to try Jack Daniels. We can’t match your Kilburn & the High Roads claim. She’s taken a bus along Kilburn High Road, but I doubt she noticed.
    Or was it Swedish or something else ?
    “It’s like a pair of eyes. You’re looking at the umlaut, and it’s looking at you.”

  32. Seriously? It looks like one of those heavy metal spellings.
    If you listen for only a few seconds to the Mikado track by Bläck Fööss, you’ll hear that they’re not heavy metal. The name of the band is just a phonetic rendering of everyday Kölsch words – bläck is “bare” (cf. standard German der Hund bleckte die Zähne = “the dog bared its teeth”) and Fööss is the plural of whatever-the-Kölsch-singular-is-of-Fööss (I’d probably get the vowel wrong).

  33. Oh, you beat me too it. I saw Hawkwind at a festival, in 1971.

  34. No, no, I was interested in the Kölsch spelling, not querying their metal credentials. Are there lots of double-Ös?

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    I alas was six years old in ’71 and did not first see Hawkwind (given the extreme infrequency of their North American touring presence) until around ’91 which was . . . quite a bit past their prime. Although I am old enough to have had the experience of talking to young people with a taste for semi-legendary punk/new-wave/alt/etc. bands that floruit (is the plural floruent?) in the ’80’s and saying “oh I saw them play a really good show that would have been . . . um . . . about two years before you were born.”

  36. I saw Hawkwind at a festival, in 1971
    I feel like such an old codger, coming on here reading people reminiscing about old music that I know too.

  37. As for Hawkwind, I’ve got them on CD, but they are one group whose music sounds sadly dated.

  38. Is that short for Hawk, Wind, and Fire?

  39. My teenage son* came back from a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion the other night saying something like “I don’t know why people say German is such an ugly language”.

  40. The Mikado sticks in a set should all be made from the same piece of wood
    Stu, it says right here that in the classic mikado game there are five kinds of pieces made of five different kinds of wood.

  41. is the plural floruent?

  42. In the 1960s, there was a left-wing backbench Labour MP from east London called Ian Mikado

    He was called Ian Mikardo and he was MP for Reading from 1945-1955 and then for constituencies in the Bow and Poplar area from 1964 through to retirement in 1987.
    For me (UK 1970s), it was `jack straws’. I used to have a set that looked just like this.

  43. marie-lucie says

    Grumbly: I agree that “bestrew” would be very old-fashioned, but I was trying to insist on the transitive nature of the verb joncher. To me this verb does not connote “to cover” (the floor with reeds, etc)” but “to scatter on (the floor)”. The subject of this verb is always the things scattered. You could use joncher to describe the appearance of the reeds or even the rats (as in the Camus quotation), without implying that the floor or staircase was entirely covered with them – eg you could pick your way among them if you were careful. Eparpiller is more like “to spill and scatter” (not a liquid) from a single point, for instance, if you were to upset a bag of coffee grains and they scattered on the kitchen floor. This could be deliberate, but usually not, and the subject would be the person doing it. In the past participle this could refer for instance to houses scattered in the countryside away from a village. Disperser belongs to a higher register than éparpiller which is more homey. You would not normally use disperser about things scattering on the ground and getting lost. Also, this verb is more often used with a reflexive pronoun: se disperser would be more likely in the case of a group of people who separated in order to go in different directions.

  44. I was kind of hoping there were some LH readers literate in Chinese/Japanese who could sort out whether there’s a connection between Chien Tung/Kau Cim, its Japanese Buddhist oracle equivalent, any East Asian [gambling?] games played using the oracles, and, perhaps, a connection to Portugal (which strikes me as likely, but by no means in evidence).
    (Not that I have any nationalistic connections to Portugal, but the en.wiki article for Mikado hints at a first appearance of the game in Europe in the 16th c., and the es.wiki article points to a pre-Modern equivalent called bastoncillos. pt.wiki, sadly, is mostly about Brazilian commercial spin-offs.)

  45. Are there lots of double-Ös [in Kölsch]?
    That’s not an orthographic silliness, but an indication of a drawn-out vowel. Look at this Kölsch version of The Fox and the Grapes [Der Fuss un de Druve]. It has examples of the long vowels: muuzich, Saache. Even the short standard German word an is aan in Kölsch. On the other hand, certain words sound abrupt, like a little pop-gun going off: standard kommt is kütt in Kölsch.
    By the way, the “u” in der Fuss is very short, the word is not the singular of Fööss. Think Fuchs [fox]. Fuss is also a colloquial word for a red-headed person. I just checked: the singular of Fööss is Fooss, natch. Fuus is standard German Faust [fist].
    It I remember rightly, I was taught something about classical Greek that I could not imagine then: that it didn’t have syllabic stress but rather long/short vowels. It just occurs to me that Kölsch has the long/short vowels in spades, although it is also stressed.

  46. Not that “classical Greek” means anything particular, since there were various dialects at various times, as usual with language. The long/short vowel business had something to do with declamation in the theater.

  47. My favourite rock band name with an Umlaut is Tröckener Kecks, inspired by the cookies they were eating at the time.

  48. Do you know Half Man Half Biscuit?

  49. I had the same 1970s Waddingtons set as Ian Preston above, so it’s jack straws for me too.
    Jack Straw the rebel (if he actually existed) became, I think, something of a byword. As well as the Castle in London, there’s one in Oxford. http://www.headington.org.uk/history/pullens_lane/jack_straws_lane.html and maybe elsewhere too?

  50. My English wife knows the game as “Pick-A-Stick” and says that was the commercial name when she had it. In Australia I knew it as “chopsticks.”

  51. Crown: There’s quite a famous pub on Hampstead Heath called Jack Straw’s Castle; I remember the London buses used to drive straight through the middle of the building
    I wonder if you’re thinking of the Spaniards Inn nearby, where traffic has to weave between the pub and the old tollbooth on the other side of the road? (Jack Straw’s Castle, sadly, is now closed and converted to flats.)
    In the 1960s, there was a left-wing backbench Labour MP from east London called Ian Mikado. He had nothing to do with the game or computers
    As pointed out above, that would be Ian Mikardo. There is a story that his father Moshe arrived in East London from Poland penniless and unable to speak English, about 1895, and decided that in order to fit in better in his new home he should give himself a typically English name. There were posters everywhere advertising ‘The Mikado’, which had been revived by the Savoy Theatre, and Moshe, not knowing any better, thought this must be the common English name he was looking for, thus adopting it (albeit with slight misspelling) as his new surname …

  52. Empty: When people say that to me, I very softly recite Goethe’s Wanderers Nachtlied from memory:
    Über allen Gipfeln
    Ist Ruh,
    In allen Wipfeln
    Spürest du
    Kaum einen Hauch;
    Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
    Warte nur, balde
    Ruhest du auch.
    Pretty impressive for a graffito, really. I use it to help put my grandson to sleep, too.

  53. Exactly! The Spaniards! Thank you so much. I’ve been conflating them for years, obviously.
    And thanks for Ian Mikardo. I saw the misspelling as soon as I posted the comment. At the time, I didn’t think it was worth an additional comment of its own, but that’s an interesting story. I always liked the name. He pops in and out of the Ben Pimlott Harold Wilson biography I’m reading.

  54. JC: You should try singing it. Schubert set it to music. (This involves repeating the “schweigen” and the “warte nur”.)

  55. When you sing anything, it turns into Italian, so that proves nothing.

  56. “Do you know Half Man Half Biscuit?”
    Thanks, AJP, I didn’t, in here, you learn something new every day.

Speak Your Mind