View OED entry

rock paper scissors n. earlier than 1954

Bryn supplied an example from 1947.

Rock paper scissors is the most common English name for this game of symbolic hand gestures, but according to the OED’s current evidence, it isn’t the earliest one.  Scissors paper stone (1932), Roshambo (1936), and janken or jan ken pon (from at least 1906 in the OED‘s files) are all attested significantly earlier than rock paper scissors, which our entry traces back only as far as 1954:

1954 Lima (Ohio) News 27 July 10/1 Games of the Orient such as Japanese tag and Jan, Kem, Po (rock, paper, scissors, in American!)

Can you help us find an earlier example of rock paper scissors?

Posted by OED_Editor on 5 December 2012 14.16
Comments: 8

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  • hugo_oed

    I haven’t found an earlier rock paper scissors, but have found a description of the game from 1903 where it is simply called ken (earlier than the 1906 janken or jan ken pon in the OED‘s files).
    The Holt County sentinel., November 27, 1903

    How Japs Play Ken.
    In its most widely practiced form the basis of the Japanese game of ken is that the fully outstretched hand signifies paper: the fully closed hand, a stone; and two fingers alone extended, the rest being closed, scissors. Each of the players, counting one, two, three, throws out his hand at the moment of pronouncing three, and the one whose manual symbol is superior to that of the others, according to the theory of the game, wins the trial.Superiority is determined on the hypothesis that whereas scissors cannot cut a stone, they can cut paper.and whereas paper is cut by scissors it can wrap up a stone. Consequently scissors is inferior to stone, but conquers paper; stone is inferior to paper but conquers scissors: and paper inferior to scissors, but conquers stone. There are innumerable varieties of the game — for it is not a mere method of determining a dispute or priority — and they are constantly added to by ingenious young ladies, the dancing girl class especially, who play it with exquisite grace and judicious enhancement of beautiful hands and arms. — Japan Mail.

    • hugo_oed

      I also found stone paper scissors possibly from 1930 and 1931, earlier than scissors paper stone (1932). The English words also appear in a German publication from 1925. These are snippets, so the dates needs confirming.

      in Japan: overseas travel magazine – Volume 19 – Page 37 – 1930:

      STONE, PAPER, SCISSORS (Continued from page 33) required, the beginner in a game is generally decided by Jan Ken Pon, and when anything is to be divided among children or adults, the first choice is given to the winner of the game.

      China monthly review – Volume 57 – Page 373 – 1931:

      Or perhaps, the Canton climate not being so salubrious as his native Trinided, he is visiting Japan during this hot spell to squat upon his haunches on a tatami, and play the ‘stone, paper, scissors’ game amid the voluptuous strains of the …

      Im reich des kondor: streifzüge durch die wildnisse Südamerikas – Page 339 – Rudolf F. von Colditz – 1925:

      … gut und reichlich zu frühstücken und entweder in San Carlos mit den aus der Umgegend herbeigeströmten Engländern Cocktails und Whisky auszuwürfeln oder bei Mr. James, am Ausflusse des Limay, Stone, Paper, Scissors zu spielen.

    • Bryn_OED


      Your [November 1903] usage of “Ken” – predating the OED’s [1906] usage – seems to be a passage of agency text that was widely reprinted, across a number of years.
      The Peninsula Enterprise newspaper [Virginia] appears to have printed the same article, just a few weeks earlier, on 3rd October 1903 [p4].
      Another [1903] reprint is within “A Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Interests of the New York Athletic Club” [Vol12, p59]; however, the month is not given – so it may/may not precede the October example.Hence, it might be that other examples of the passage that you found exist

  • hb1616

    It’s called  “the old game of Rock, Scissors and Paper” in Arthur H. Lawson, Fun in the backyard, 1938
    Bernard Sterling Mason, Social games for recreation, 1935 has “Rock, Scissors, Paper”. 

  • hb1616

    Rudolf v. Colditz,  Im Reiche des Kondor: Streifzüge durch die Wildnisse Südamerikas, Parey, Berlin 1925 is indeed a title listed by Deutsche Nationalbibliothek.

  • hb1616

    This seems to be the earliest so far (The image confirms 1906)
    American stationer 
    The stone will smash the scissors, and the scissors will cut the paper, but the paper will wrap the stone, so one suit conquers any card of another suit, but is itself conquered … This is the famous old Japanese idea of paper, stone, and scissors.

  • Bryn_OED

    For a 1947 usage of the requested “Rock, Paper, Scissors”:
    Spokesman-Review [28th March 1947, p4] – “Youth Institute Studies Games”
    “Featured in the course were games in which institute participants took an active part .  The variations of time-honored games  `Tic Tac Toe’ and `Rock, Paper, Scissors’, wherein body placement motion depicts the player’s move, were well received.”
    For a 1925 usage of the, alternative, “Stone, Paper, Scissors” [predating the 1932 example mentioned by OED]:
    The Register newspaper (Adelaide) [16th January 1925, p12]
    “… the Teutonic triangular `stone, scissors, and paper’ method of drawing lots.”
    In the UK, two novels predate, that [1932] usage, for “Scissors, Paper, Stone”; according to the British Library catalogue, these are:
    [1927] “Scissors Cut Paper”, by Gerard Fairlie [Hodder & Stoughton]
    [1928] “Stone Blunts Scissors by Gerard Fairlie [Hodder & Stoughton]
    Hence, these two novels would seem to confirm that phrase’s common currency, in Britain by 1927; with the novels being likely to contain the full phrase itself, within their pages

    • Bryn_OED

      A slightly earlier UK usage of “Scissors, Paper, Stone”, than the one posted, previously.
      In a letter [entitled “Roman Games”] in The Times newspaper [1st March 1924, p15], referring to an earlier article [“Roman Games”, 26th February 1924, p15] the correspondent notes the `Maltese game of Zhot’:
      “A stone breaks scissors, paper wraps up stones, and scissors cut paper.  The players stand facing one another ….”
      This prompted a letter  [entitled  “Japanese Games”, in The Times newspaper of 6th March 1924, p8] where the correspondent argued that this is the Japanese game of Jan Ken Pon [Stone ..Paper .. Scissors].