- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) a danger, a perilous obstacle; a dice game
Today in our intermittent series of Etymologies That Are Way More Interesting Than You Might Have Thought They’d Be, it’s the turn of the word hazard:
As we explained over on Twitter, hazard (like a fair proportion of English words with a Z in them) derives from Arabic. Al-zahr means “the die” in Arabic, and that form—albeit with a little bit of etymological jiggery-pokery courtesy of Spanish and French—had morphed into aserd by the time it arrived in English in the 1300s. From there, an initial H and a medial Z both emerged in the Middle Ages, before hazard established itself as the most widespread spelling of the word around the mid sixteenth century.
As for the game itself, the Oxford English Dictionary explains that hazard was originally “a gambling game with two dice in which the chances are complicated by a number of arbitrary rules.” Saying that those “arbitrary rules” are “complicated” is putting it lightly. So brace yourself—here’s how to play hazard.
A player (known as the caster) picks a number (known as the main) from one of five target figures: 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9. The caster then rolls two dice. If the total on the dice is the same as their main, the caster wins (known as nicking). If they roll a total of 2 or a 3, they lose (known as outing). If they roll a total of 11 or 12, one of three things happens, depending on what number the caster picked as their main. (Are you keeping up at the back?)
If the caster chose either 5 or 9 as their main, but rolls an 11 or 12, they lose. If they chose either 6 or 8 as their main, they lose if they score an 11, but win if they score a 12. And, oppositely, if they chose 7 as their main, they win with an 11, but lose with a 12.
If none of these scenarios happens, then the number they have rolled (known as the chance) becomes their new target, and the caster rolls again. If they roll the chance again, they win. If they roll their main, the number they originally chose, then this time they lose. If they roll literally anything else, this time nothing happens and they keep rolling, again and again, until they score either the chance (and win) or their main (and lose).
In a typical game, the caster would play three rounds like these, with bets being placed on the outcome of each round against the bank (a role taken on by their opposition). After three rounds, play passes on to the next player, and continues in the same way.
Despite these headache-inducingly complicated rules, the game of hazard was once immensely popular in England, familiar enough indeed to be mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare’s Henry V. Although less popular in its original form today, countless variations of hazard are still played, all with various tweaks to the original rules and gameplay.