What Is the Origin of Tic-Tac-Toe?

(Last Updated On: December 5, 2019)
What Is the Origin of Tic-Tac-Toe?

Along with paper football and a host of other games, Tic-Tac-Toe is one of the most common ways for people bored in class, or just about any setting, to pass the time. Easy to set up and play, this test of strategy seems to have been around for years. However, if you were to ask around, chances are that no one would actually be able to tell you where the much-loved game originated from. Most people learn the game as children on the paper tablecloths of their local diners, and that’s the end of it.

What you may not realize is that both the game and the name of Tic-Tac-Toe have a surprisingly interesting history. Let’s take a closer look and see how it all comes together.

Tic-Tac-Toe Origin

Note that we separate the history of the name from the actual game, because those aren’t one and the same. First, let’s start with the game. Some ascribe the origin of Tic-Tac-Toe to the ancient Egyptians, but the most concrete ancient record we have of the game is from the Romans, and the game they referred to as terni lapilli, or three pebbles at a time. With this said, the game wasn’t necessarily identical to how we play today. Rather than writing down markings, it’s believed that the Romans would use tokens, pieces, or pebbles, and move them around the grid to represent the different moves. Much like today, you could see terni lapilli grids scrabbled all around ancient Roman cities. 

How the game progressed beyond that is a bit more unclear. Some say there are records of it being played in the Middle Ages, with a mystic attachment to it, but the most concrete reappearance we have of it comes sometime later. In the 18th century in England, record of a children’s game close to Tic-Tac-Toe as we know it first appeared. While there isn’t a concrete understanding of what happened next, most likely the game was passed onto American and other international shores via England’s history of colonization and immigration.

Where Does the Name Come From?

So, with all this said, how did the name progress to Tic-Tac-Toe? Well, as it turns out, that name was originally ascribed to an entirely different game that no longer exists. This game was played by throwing a pencil at a slate covered with numbers, then assigning a score based on counting the numbers hit with the pencil. Think of it like a strange variation of darts. Historians believe the name at the time, Tit-Tat-Toe, came from the sound of the pencil hitting the board. With a slight Americanization to Tic-Tac-Toe, the name would end up living on, even if the actual game wouldn’t. 

Tic-Tac-Toe Today

Today, Tic-Tac-Toe is played worldwide, albeit not always under the same name. When played in England, it’s generally referred to as “noughts and crosses,” the same name it had when it first appeared on the scene in the 1800s. Different regions in Ireland may switch between the names “X’s and O’s,” “Boxin’ Oxen,” and “X-e O-zees.”  In Norway, it’s called “Twiddles and Bears.” The good news is that it’s pretty much played the same way in every country, so if you find yourself in an airport, drawing up that famous board is a challenge everyone can recognize.

As a comparison to the original terni lapilli, we draw lines to create nine-square grids. With X starting the game, people try to mark the squares with Xs and Os, trying to get those three marks in a row. However, there are a variety of more complex variants out there for those who want to try their luck, including boards with four or five rows, or even taking the game into three dimensions using special boards.

Put some of your tic-tac-toe acumen to the test with this quiz.