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General · 21st August 2013
Deb Cowper
Meaning: A game, in which a blindfolded player tries to catch others.

Origin: Blind-man's buff has been one of the most popular of children's games for centuries. In the most commonly known version one player is blindfolded (or hooded in some countries) and, after being turned around a few times for disorientation, has to catch one of the others. The blindfolded player is usually taunted, struck and poked with sticks, for the general amusement.

There are records of a variation of it being played in pre-Christian Greece and almost every country has a form of it. In Europe alone we find:

Italy - Mosca cieca (blind fly).
Germany - Blindekuh (blind cow)
Sweden - Blindbock (blind buck)
Spain - Gallina ciega (blind hen)
France - Colin-maillard (a name deriving from Jean Colin-Maillard, a warrior who had his eyes gouged out during a battle, but continued to fight, striking at random around him)

Even in Victorian England, where the game was especially popular, both in the playground and as a parlour game for adults, the name wasn't settled on. In addition to 'Blind-man's buff' it was variously called 'Hoodwink blind', 'Blind man's buffet' and 'Blind man's bluff'.

(In the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield, just a few miles from where I sit and type, there's a curtain and blinds shop called 'Blind man's bluff'. Not as famous as the mediaeval twisted spire perhaps, but etymologically more interesting.)

The 'bluff' version of the name is the result of a mishearing and possibly also the alliteration with 'blind'. The 'buffet' version seems odd too, as the game has nothing to do with offering party food to the sightless, but that is in fact the correct name of the game. To 'buffet' is to strike or to push, as is done in the game. The word 'buffet' isn't widely used with that meaning any longer, although 'buffeting' is still called into use whenever umbrellas or awnings are blown about in gales.

The first example of the game's name that I can find in print is from a 1590 play by Robert Wilson entitled Three Ladies of London:

Ile to my stall; Love, Lucre, Conscience, blindman buffe to you all.

The 'buffet' version, although the source of the game's name, isn't known in print until a few years later, in John Bramhall's religious text Serpent Salve, 1643:

We goe to blind-man's buffet one with another.

The game was often played at Christmas and the English diarist Samuel Pepys referred to his wife playing the game in his diary entry for Monday 26th December 1664:

...and so home to bed, where my people and wife innocently at cards very merry, and I to bed, leaving them to their sport and blindman’s buff.
Adding your grain of salt
Comment by Francesca Gesualdi on 17th September 2013
It is very enjoyable to read your "Phrase of the Week." Thanks for adding your grain of salt to the history of the phrase.