some English words just aren’t very nice. And I’m not talking about technical words that describe punctuation, like semicolons, even if you don’t like them.
one of those words is “stupid”. implies complete disdain for someone, with the insinuation that they are not in their right mind or just not thinking straight.
Due to its power to humiliate, “stupid” finds its way into all sorts of insults. It doesn’t come up very often in common expressions, but when it does, it’s memorable.
An example of this is “play stupid games, win stupid prizes”.
what does the expression “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” mean?
The expression “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” means that if you participate in something that is obviously a bad idea, only bad things will come of it. Normally, this phrase is used to refer especially to violent or humiliating things that happen when someone does something stupid.
the “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” origin
The first recorded use of the phrase “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” is unclear.
many people on the internet claim to have first seen it in tom clancy books in the 1980s and 1990s. however, a search for tom clancy books on google books reveals that the phrase never appears in any of his novels .
according to google ngrams, the phrase “win stupid prizes” first appeared in print in the early 1990s.
this seems to have been in a progressive little magazine called gauntlet which talks about how people in the game show truth or consequence compete to “win stupid prizes”.
The first actual use of the entire phrase, at least according to Google Books, was in the mid-2010s. However, the phrase certainly predates this time period, as can be seen by persistent online assumption of which dates from the 1980s.
We could pause to let that sink in, but instead let’s leave the origins of this expression shrouded in mystery and learn what it means.
the meaning of “playing stupid games”
everyone loves board games. they can be a great way to pass the time on a winter night when you’re cooped up, or they can help you get to know people better.
was this expression coined by someone who secretly hates board games?
Not really. the type of “game” referred to is not usually an actual game. also, we are not talking about spending an hour deciding whether to put a comma before or after also when there are guides that facilitate the choice.
instead, the word “games” here is used to refer to the tendency of some people to press buttons and do things they shouldn’t.
The games in question here could be mind games, such as those played in unhealthy relationships to manipulate or gain power over the other person.
Another example would be political games where a politician taunts members of a violent fringe group because he thinks he can keep them in check and gain more political influence for himself.
The games could even involve harassing members of the police or military.
Basically, a stupid game in the context of this quote is something that is a bad idea but the person in question is doing it because they think they can do it or they haven’t thought about the consequences.
the meaning of “winning stupid prizes”
Now that we understand what stupid games are, “stupid prizes” should be pretty clear.
again, these are not the tacky, useless prizes offered to contestants on classic television shows. no, these prizes are usually violent or humiliating (see also: embarrassing vs embarrassing) for the lucky “winner”.
To go back to our earlier examples, if you play stupid games in a relationship, your reward is likely to be dumped or miserable.
The politician who courts violent extremists is unlikely to satisfy them for long and may alienate his other constituents, earning him the loss of his seat or even a violent attack.
And the less said about the prizes you get for annoying the police, the better.
In short, if you win a stupid award for something you’ve done that was stupid, you’ll probably regret it.
play stupid games, win stupid prizes: what it really means
Taken together, the expression “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” implies that if you act thoughtlessly you will face negative consequences.
You can think of it as a more sarcastic way of saying something like “you reap what you sow” or “you get what you get”.
Let’s look at some other examples.
In this somewhat lengthy example, the stupid game edgar played was teasing wildlife with food. The stupid award isn’t explicitly described, but since Edgar’s friends are talking to a doctor, we can assume it was up to no good.
here, suzanne wins the stupid prize of being dumped by playing mind games with the people she’s dating. this is a stupid game because it’s much better to communicate with people honestly so they can understand your true feelings.