The universe,
I hold,
is no charade,
No acted pun,
unriddled by a word.

-George Eliot, 1878.

Charades is a whimsical sport much older than the 1968 mystery/romance characterized in the movie. Traditionally the diversion has been the catch phrase for a number of games that involve guessing words or phrases. It’s mentioned time and again in literature through out the 19th and 20th centuries similar to the way that bridge or whist is.

No doubt Scrooge and the Cratchit's amused themselves with the pastime during yuletide, once Ebenezer's heart was saved. This form of entertainment has been described as “A ridiculous pretence” or a farce. Primarily charades are riddles where syllables are to be guessed. Players would rely on enigmatic descriptions of the words or syllables. The silent form is called dumb charades and more recent versions are mimed in a dramatic presentation commonly referred to as acted charades.

The recorded history of charades dates back to the 16th century France where popular parlor games called Petit Jeux were composed of intellectual exercises created for evening fun. Some became so engaging that a few of the famous evenings have even been documented. One enthusiast at noted in 1985:

In 1654, King Louie XIV (sic) ballet danced the clues to a comedy of proverbs in front of his entourage. Queen Catherine the Great, in 18th Century Russia, used to make up her own dramatic proverbs to be acted out and solved by her court. The noted poet Alfred de Musset wrote his own proverbs for the game in 1831, and by the mid 19th Century Charades became the rage in England.

Many times charades were presented in prose or verse. A good example is the following taken from the more well known ones created by Winthrop Mackworth Praed:

My first is company;
my second shuns company;
my third collects company;
and my whole amuses company.

The Atlantic Puzzler (The Atlantic Monthly) explains how to make up the spoken riddle form of the game by breaking, ”the answer into two or more convenient parts and define them sequentially, as in …FARMING (agriculture) breaks into "far" (remote) and "Ming" (Chinese dynasty), and could be clued as "Agriculture in remote Chinese dynasty.”

Today’s most fashionable form of this delight is the acted charade in which the meaning of the different syllables is acted out on a stage where players mime each syllable of a word, a book title or movie and so on in consecutive acts, while the audience attempts to deduce the whole word or title. A stunning illustration of the acted charade is demonstrated in William Makepeace Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair written as a serial beginning in 1847 and ending in1848. Many have hailed it as a clever and absorbing critique of early 19th-century society. In chapter 51 entitled In Which a Charade Is Acted Which May or May Not Puzzle the Reader the King has come to dinner and following the meal a game of charades is played. Thackeray’s scheming and manipulative main character Becky is at the heart of the tale. She portrays a symbolic role in the game as Clytemnestra who murdered her husband, Agamemnon when her lover's courage failed. Thus Becky’s inclination for bumping off her significant other is implicit in her successful rendering because she plays the Greek goddess so believably the audience is horrified leaving one member convinced that Becky could commit murder.

By now the party game has gained such legendary status that pretty much everyone knows the rules. Some examples of a few of the standard signals in common use today are: to indicate a book title, a player puts their hands together as if praying, then unfolds them flat. To signify a film title the player forms an O with one hand to mime a lens while cranking the other hand as if they are running an old-fashioned movie camera. To show that one word sounds like another a player typically pulls on their ear. Players usually hold up fingers to show the number of words in the phase, then they hold up a number of fingers once more to point out which word they want the audience guess, finally holding their fingers against their arm indicates the number of syllables in a particular word.

Even though the nature of the game has changed it’s been around a long time. No one really knows when or where the game arose, but historians say that the record keeping from the middle ages tells that the name of the game came from the French Provencal word charrado meaning a "long talk” or “chatter." Some say it could be of an echoic origin of charrar implying more specially "to chatter” and “gossip." Etymologists add that the Welsh word siarad is borrowed from French or English and its sense of "speak, a talk" is close to the original Provencal. Eventually the word reached a metaphorical meaning as a, “readily perceived pretense; a travesty: went through the charade of a public apology.


The American Heritage Dictionary , charade: Accessed May 26, 2005.

Charades: Accessed May 26, 2005.

games2collect, Charades: games-c/204023-charades-1985.htm
Accessed May 26, 2005.

LoveToKnow Article on CHARADE:
Accessed May 26, 2005.

OED, charade: Accessed May 26, 2005.

Online Etymology Dictionary, charade: Accessed May 26, 2005.

Puzzler Instructions:
Accessed May 26,2005

Shade_Jon, BoardGameGeek:
Accessed May 26, 2005.