Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: Gambit

The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is gambit. Read on for what it means, how it’s used, and more.

What It Means

gambit is something done or said in order to gain an advantage or to produce a desired effect.

// The workers’ opening gambit in the negotiations was to demand a wage hike.

GAMBIT in Context

“In a sign of mounting frustration, Multnomah County’s top prosecutor Monday released a list of the cases of nearly 300 people who have had charges dismissed against them this year because no public defenders were available to represent them. … [District Attorney Mike] Schmidt’s move to publicize all cases that judges have dismissed—believed to be a first in Oregon—raises public awareness but also clearly is a gambit to put public pressure on the state to find a remedy.” — Aimee Green, The Oregonian, 22 Nov. 2022

Did You Know?

Don’t let the similarities of sound and general flavor between gambit and gamble trip you up; the two words are unrelated. Gambit first appeared in English in a 1656 chess handbook that was said to feature almost a hundred illustrated gambettsGambett traces back first to the Spanish word gambito, and before that to the Italian gambetto, from gamba meaning “leg.” Gambetto referred to the act of tripping someone, as in wrestling, in order to gain an advantage. In chess, gambit (or gambett, as it was once spelled) originally referred to a chess opening whereby the bishop’s pawn is intentionally sacrificed—or tripped—to gain an advantage in position. Gambit is now applied to many other chess openings, but after being pinned down for years, it also finally broke free of chess’s hold and is used generally to refer to any “move,” whether literal or rhetorical, done to get a leg up, so to speak. While such moves can be risky, gambit is not synonymous with gamble, which likely comes from Old English gamen, meaning “amusement, jest, pastime”—source too of game.

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