Jeopardy. This word is supposed to be derived from ‘j’ai perdu’, or ‘jeu perdu’. Skinner and Junius. Hazard; danger; Peril. A word not now in use.
A Dictionary of the English Language (1785 edition), by Samuel Johnson (1709-84)
There are two errors: the noun jeopardy is not from French j’ai perdu (I have lost) or jeu perdu (lost game); and it was in continuous use during the 18th century.
danger of loss, harm or failure
This word is from the obsolete French expression jeu parti, which meant, literally, a divided game or play.
Un jeu is a game, a play, from Latin jocus, a jest, a joke, a game (cf. English jocular), and parti is the past participle of the verb partir. This verb now means to leave (cf. the English verbs to part, to depart) but, in jeu parti, it has the sense, now obsolete, of to divide, to share.
(The verb partager has now superseded partir in this sense, except in the phrase avoir maille à partir avec quelqu’un: une maille was a coin of very little value, and the phrase, which literally means to have a ‘maille’ to share with someone, is the equivalent of to have a brush with someone.)
In Old and Middle French, the major criterion for a jeu parti was the involvement of opposed viewpoints or alternative possibilities.
A jeu parti was in particular a fixed-form lyrical poem in dialogue form, consisting of six verses and two envois, in which two partners debated a problem usually related to love, each of them developing a contradictory argument.
The expression also denoted a choice between two alternatives in the phrase faire un jeu parti à quelqu’un, literally to make a ‘jeu parti’ to someone, which meant to give someone a choice between two alternatives. It also denoted an equal condition for example in ne pas avoir de jeu parti, literally not to have a ‘jeu parti’, that is to say not to be in a condition equal (to that of the adversary).
The expressions jeu bien parti, jeu mal parti, literally well-divided game, ill-divided game, denoted a situation in which the protagonists’ conditions are equal or unequal.
One of the earliest uses of jeu parti, jeuparti, jeupartie, etc., in Anglo-Norman was as a chess term to denote a stratagem. It is recorded in a chess treatise written in the middle of the 13th century, which begins with the author’s general address to his readers:
Seignors, un poi m’entendez,
Ki les gius de eschés amez,
E jeo une partie vus dirrai
Solom iceo ke apris en ai,
Les gius partiz numeement,
Ke me unt apris diverse gent.
Kar ki ke voldra ententivement
Des gius aprendre le doctrinement,
Des sutils trez, des matesons,
Des defenses, cum les aprendrons,
Bien purra veer e parceveir
Ke gius partiz a grant saveir
En tutes curz aseurement
Juer purra plus afeitement.
Lords, a little to me listen,
Who the games of chess love,
And I a game will tell you
According to what I have learnt of it,
The stratagems by name,
That divers people have taught me.
For he who will want attentively
Of the games learn the science,
Of the subtle moves, of the mates,
Of the defences, as we will teach them,
Will well see and perceive
That he who of stratagems has great knowledge
In all courts assuredly
Will be capable of playing more skilfully.
More generally, the term denoted an undecided state of affairs, with winning or losing hanging in the balance. The expression en jeupartie de, meaning with (something) at stake, was used in Britton, a summary of the laws of England written in Anglo-Norman in the late 13th century:
Si de ceo soit debat entre les parties, de office soit enquise la verité, mes ne mie en jeupartie de perdre ou de gayner, tut le voillent les parties.
If the situation be disputed between the parties, the truth shall be inquired by office, but not so that the gaining or losing of the action shall be at stake, though the parties be willing that it should be so.
Very early, the sense of a dangerous situation developed from that of a situation in which the chances of winning or losing are evenly balanced. For example, in Mirour de l’Omme (Mankind’s Mirror – also titled Speculum Meditantis – circa 1376-79), a poem in Anglo-Norman exploring the roles and morals of mankind, the English poet John Gower (1330?-1408) wrote:
Et Salomon auci te dit,
Q’ove folhardy pour nul excit
Tu dois aler, car pour petit
Il te metra la jupartie,
Dont tu serres en malvois plit.
And Solomon also said thou shouldst for no reason go with the foolhardy for he will put thee in jeopardy for little cause, so that thou wilt be in evil plight.
The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1342-1400) used jeopardy in both its senses of a problem in chess and a dangerous situation:
– in The Book of the Duchess:
But God wolde, I had oones or twyes
Yconde and knowe the jeupardyes
That cowde the Greke Pictagoras,
I shulde have pleyde the bet at ches,
And kept my fers the bet therby.
But I wish to God that I could have understood, just once or twice, the chess problems the way that the Greek Pythagoras might have. I should have played better at chess and thereby kept my queen better.
– in Troilus and Criseyde:
For myn estat now lyth in iupartye,
And eek myn emes lyf lyth in balaunce.
For my well-being lies in jeopardy and my uncle’s life is in the balance.
The obsolete verb to jeopard, which is a back-formation from jeopardy, is found for example in the Book of Judges, 5:18 (King James Version – 1611):
Zebulun and Naphtali were a people that jeoparded their lives unto the death in the high places of the field.
In the New International Version, this verse is:
The people of Zebulun risked their very lives; so did Naphtali on the terraced fields.