The Origin Of The Word Hazard Comes From An Unexpected Place

According to mathematician Cătălin Bărboianu in his book "The Mathematics of Lottery," the oldest known evidence of gambling comes from Ancient China, around 2000 B.C., from a reference to a lottery-type game called "the drawing of wood." Physical evidence of lotteries date back to the Chinese Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire.

But, according to Britannica, dice are thought to be the oldest known betting implement. In the adorably titled and classic journal article "Of Dice and Men," George F. Dales, the authority on the origin of dice, places the earliest known archaeological evidence of dice in the Indus Valley civilization of Harappan. Their frequent trading with Mesopotamia originally obscured the origin of the gambling toy. These clay or bone dice date back to 3000 B.C.

The popularity of dice lives on today, affecting our language, behavior, and usually a hazard to our bank accounts. The most popular use of the word "hazard" means "a source of danger," but it isn't until you read on to the fifth definition (via Merriam-Webster) that the root, or etymology, of the word is revealed.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with gambling addiction issues, help is available. Visit the National Council on Problem Gambling resources website for guidance and resources.

The lost origin of the word

Language is a messy behavior with few if any rules. Like fads and trends, language spreads from one group or culture to the next in a process called language diffusion (via University of Vienna). 

The original hazard to which the English word was alluding is the risk of gambling losses in a dice game from medieval Europe. In the late middle ages, hazard was the name of a popular dice game often played for money (via Gambling Sites). Believed to originate in England, the earliest references date back to the 13th and 14th century. 

One theory is that hazard gained its French name when English knights traveling to the crusades moved through France with their addictive pastime (via Gambling Sites). In Old French, "hasard" was the name for any game of chance played with dice (via "A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language") or it could also mean a roll of the dice which produced the number six (via Online Etymology Dictionary). The French word hasard likely had its origins from the Spanish word azar which has a definition of an "unfortunate throw at dice." Before then, the origin of the word becomes dicey. It's difficult not to see the similarity between the Spanish word azar and the Arabic word al-zahr (pronounced az-zahr), which means "the die." However, many lexicographers are doubtful of the connection. Classical Arabic dictionaries do not contain the word zahr, leading experts to stop short of connecting the two lineages. 

How hazard became craps

Anyone curious about how to play hazard can find the convoluted rules online (via Lost Kingdom). It's played with a large group of participants, much like craps. It involves rolling two dice with the sum total of the roll indicating if you lost your shirt or not. On the first roll, the count displayed by the dice establishes a "main." Based on the main, future rolls are considered a win or a loss. Players can decide to bet against the house or person throwing the dice, called the "caster."

The game of hazard continued to gain popularity into the 17th and 18th centuries, where it was played at the infamous gambling establishments of London (via the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica). It wasn't until the 19th century that the rules were simplified into what is now known as craps.

According to a 1932 article in Maclean's, when the game of hazard was brought to Louisiana it became popular in the Creole population. Creoles were often called the derogatory name "Johnny Crapaud," crapaud meaning toad or frog in French. This was fitting, as game play in street alleys caused players to crouch down with bent knees, resembling the amphibian. Over time, crapaud became "craps."

The hazards of hazard

As the story of the word hazard's etymology implies, the risks associated with gambling have been known since its inception. In the 1800s, Andrew Steinmetz wrote of hazard in "The Gaming Table: Its Votaries and Victims," "this game was properly so called; for it made a man or undid him in the twinkling of an eye." 

According to the journal of Psychiatry Edgmont, when a gambler makes riskier and riskier choices, the behavior is compulsory and they suffer negative physical, psychological and social consequences. It has then become pathological gambling. It's a recognized disorder in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition." Approximately 1% to 3% of people are thought to display pathological gambling behavior, a human tendency that likely hasn't changed since the middle ages and before. The simplicity, popularity, and statistics of dice rolls are so well known, studies on pathological gambling use a dice game to study the condition. Psychologists developed The Game of Dice Task (via bio-protocol) as a tool to measure people's ability to assess risks. Pathological gambling is associated with or might lead to depression, anxiety, and/or substance abuse. 

A popular source of entertainment and folly, the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer made reference to hazard's dangers. He wrote, "Hazard is the very mother of lies and deceit, and false swearing, and blasphemy, and waste of cattle and of time" in "The Canterbury Tales." Unless you had been cued into the 14th century definition of hazard by CliffsNotes, you'd have no clue what Chaucer was talking about.