Ben Yagoda has a very interesting investigation (at the Lingua Franca blog) of the history of the suddenly popular phrase “the long game” (as in “He was not someone with a flair for the long game—for the week-in, week-out slog of bringing colleagues around to his views”). His findings:

Using Google Books as my Wayback Machine, I came upon this 1860 quote, in the journal The Athenaeum: “… to continue speculations, in the soundness or unsoundness of all who play ‘the long game’ are interested.” The quotation marks around the phrase were a smoking gun, indicating recent coinage. And sure enough, when I went back just a little farther, I hit pay dirt in Bohn’s New Hand-book of Games, published in 1856. In the section on whist, the book notes, “In playing the long game, when both sides mark five, they are precisely in the same position with those parties who are beginning the short game.”
It turns out that the long game and the short game are variants of whist. Chamber’s Encyclopedia explains: “About 1785 the experiment of dividing the game into half was tried, and short whist was the result. The short game soon came into favour; and in 1864 the supremacy of short whist was acknowledged.”
Apparently, just as the long game was losing its popularity as a game, it came into its own as a metaphor.

Rarely do investigations of phrase origins have such satisfying answers!


  1. J. Del Col says

    “Long game” is also used in golf to refer to the way a player gets from the tee to the vicinity of the green where the ‘short game’ takes over, or as they say “Drive for show; putt for dough.”

  2. narrowmargin says

    My conscious recollection of this phrase goes back only a few years, to a bit of dialog on a TV show that went, more or less, like this:
    (the man makes a pass at his female colleague, who then asks)
    She: How long have you felt like this about me?
    He: Oh, since I first saw you.
    She: Why haven’t you brought this up before?
    He: I was playing the long game.

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