Green’s Dictionary of Slang

play v.

1. [16C+] to trick, to deceive.

2. [16C+] (also play turnabout) to pursue sexually; to seduce; to engage in sexual activity .

3. [mid-19C+] to be involved in an affair outside one’s primary relationship.

4. [late 19C+] to conduct oneself; to approach a situation; to act in a certain way; thus play it... v.

5. [late 19C+] to manipulate, to exploit, to ‘use’ someone.

6. [1930s–60s] (US) to treat someone as.

7. [1930s+] (orig. US) to cooperate, to comply, to accept, to tolerate, to make sense; usu. as negative I don’t play that, that doesn’t play.

8. [late 19C; 1970s+] to mock, to make fun of, to tease; thus play oneself [1970s+ use is mainly US black].

9. [1980s] (US drugs) to adulterate.

In compounds

play-white (n.)

[1950s+] (S.Afr.) one who attempts to ‘pass’ as white.

In phrases

play along (v.) (orig. US)

1. [1920s+] to agree, to cooperate.

2. [1930s+] to deceive gradually, to ‘take for a ride’.

play around (v.) (orig. US)

1. [1910s+] to indulge in sexual play.

2. [1920s+] to have a number of affairs, lovers, entanglements.

3. [1920s+] to seduce.

4. [1930s+] to play mental or emotional ‘games’ with someone.

play a store (v.)

[1950s] (US) to go shoplifiting.

play away (v.) [sporting imagery] [1970s+]

1. to philander, to commit adultery.

2. to do something outside one’s experience.

play bad (v.) [20C+] (W.I.)

1. of a child, to behave badly, rudely.

2. of an adult, to put on a show of defiance.

play chaneys (v.) [? SE Chinese, so far as the racial stereotype is concerned, the Chinese person is ‘not straight’]

[late 19C] (Aus.) to exert influence; thus play at chaneys v., to bribe.

play diddle-diddle (v.) [pun on SE diddle-diddle, a fiddle/SE to fiddle]

[16C] to play tricks, to importune.

play dirt (v.)

[late 19C–1930s] (US) to deceive.

play down on (v.)

[mid-19C] to take a mean or unfair advantage of.

play for (v.)

see separate entry.

play for both teams (v.)

[1990s+] (US gay) to be bisexual.

play for the other team (v.)

[2000s] to be homosexual.

play Fourteenth Street (v.) [the cheap shops of New York’s 14th St]

[1940s] (US black) to disparage, to treat in a condescending manner.

play it... (v.)

see separate entry.

play it on (someone) (v.) (also play it off on)

[late 19C–1900s] (Aus./UK) to deceive, to trick.

play low (v.) (also play low down) [lowdown adv.]

[late 19C–1910s] (US) to act meanly.

play off (v.)

1. [late 16C–early 17C; late 19C–1910s] (also play off one’s dust) to finish a drink, to toss off a glass.

2. [mid-19C] to commit adultery.

play on (v.)

1. [19C+] (also play off on) to trick, to fool.

2. [1950s+] to cheat on sexually, to cuckold.

play oneself (v.)

[1950s+] (US black) to delude oneself as to one’s success, sexuality, character etc, to aggrandize oneself, to humiliate oneself.

play out (v.)

1. [mid-19C+] (orig. US black) to wear out, to lose usefulness, interest, value; usu. as played (out) adj.

2. [1930s] (US campus) to use so much that it will eventually fade out.

3. [1950s+] to go along with something for the sake of appearance, until it loses its interest or value.

play someone off (v.)

[mid-19C+] (US) to avoid someone’s attentions through guile.

play turnabout (v.)

see sense 2 above.

play white (v.)

[1960s] (S.Afr.) for a ‘coloured’ person to ‘pass’ as white.

SE in slang uses

In compounds

play brother (n.)

[1960s+] (US black) an extremely close friend, one who resembles a brother; thus also play cousin, play mother, play sister.

playground (n.) (also chippy’s playground)

[1940s+] (orig. US black) the stomach.

playhouse (n.)

see separate entry.

In phrases

not playing with a full deck

see separate entry.

play a-cross (v.) (also play across)

[early 19C] (UK Und.) to lose deliberately, so as to lure one’s victim deeper into the game.

play a full hand (v.) [poker imagery]

[1900s] (US) to act from a position of strength.

play a game at loll-tongue (v.)

[late 18C–early 19C] to have one’s saliva checked for traces of syphilis.

play a good stick (v.)

[mid-18C–mid-19C] of a fiddler, to perform competently.

play a record (v.)

[1950s] to boast, to brag.

play at up and down (v.)

[mid-19C] (UK Und.) to serve time on the treadmill.

play cagey-cannon (v.) [SE cagey; ety. of cannon unknown]

[1940s] (Irish) to act cautiously.

play close (v.)

see separate entry.

play dirty (v.) (also get dirty)

[1910s+] (orig. US) to behave reprehensibly, to cheat.

play ducks and drakes with (v.) (also make ducks and drakes of) [SE ducks and drakes, a game based on the tossing of flat stones across a pond; thus in a financial context one is idly tossing away one’s money]

1. [17C–mid-19C] to squander one’s fortune, to spend money unwisely.

2. [mid-19C-1950] to act carelessly, to take chances.

play hooky (v.)

see separate entry.

play it by ear (v.) (also play it by skyhook) [a musician who has no score as a guide/skyhook, an imaginary contrivance that keeps one ‘flying’]

[1960s+] to act in an ad hoc spontaneous manner.

play it close to one’s chest (v.) (also play it close to one’s vest) [card-playing imagery: the player holds their cards close to their body in order to stop any opponent seeing them]

1. [late 19C] to conserve one’s funds.

2. [1940s+] to act in a reserved, secretive manner.

play it off (v.)

[1980s+] (US campus) to dismiss something, to not care.

play jip (v.) [gyp v./dial. jip, to trick, to cheat]

[1940s] (Aus.) to irritate.

play least in sight (v.)

[late 18C–early 19C] to hide, to keep out of the way.

play on a wet wicket (v.)

[1900s–10s] (Aus.) to be drunk.

play past (v.) [1960s] (US black)

1. to circumvent obstacles, mental as well as physical.

2. to lose an opportunity.

play scared pool (v.)

[1970s] (US) to act over-cautiously.

play stickers (with) (v.)

[1930s] (UK Und.) to steal money which one is supposedly passing on to a confederate.

play the iggie (v.) [abbr.]

[1960s–70s] (US) to ignore.

play the mouth organ (v.)

[1960s+] (drugs) to smoke heroin with a rolled-up matchbook cover substituted for the usual roll of tinfoil, which is used to suck up the heated, smoking heroin.

play the part of the strong man (v.) [one is ‘pushing’ the cart]

[late 18C–early 19C] to be whipped at the cart’s tail.

play up (v.)

see separate entry.

play upon the prick (v.) [play on SE]

[mid-16C] (UK Und.) to mark cards with pinpricks.