January 7, 2005


I'm procrastinating, even though it isn't 7 a.m. yet. I've read the NYT, done the Friday crossword puzzle, and I open the blinds and it's still dark out. I'd like to go in to the office and read some admissions files today, but it's six degrees and, as I've said, still dark. So I'm reading some blogs and not really feeling that inspired to blog. I thought Andrew Sullivan had a lot of good posts up from today and yesterday, but nothing I wanted to opine on, so I clicked away from there and onto an Economist article that looked interesting ("Meritocracy in America"), and finally I got distracted by the sort of thing that makes me want to blog, actually, probably, my favorite thing to blog about: a language puzzle with a pop culture dimension.

A subheading in the article is "All snakes, no ladders." What does that refer to? I wondered. I knew the British called runs in nylon stockings "ladders," but then what were the "snakes"? Or is it something like the old board game "Chutes and Ladders"? Googling, I discovered that, in fact, "Snakes and Ladders" really was the original board game that the American "Chutes and Ladders" was based on. It's an apt metaphor, being a game in which one tries to advance along a path of squares, but the roll of the dice might land you on the first step of a ladder (which lets you immediately climb far ahead on the path) or the top of a chute (in which case you slide back to a much earlier point on the path).

Here's a brief, illustrated history of the game "Snakes and Ladders." It goes back to the second century B.C., to India:
Some say the game was developed by religious teachers who used the game to teach children the difference between "good and evil". In any event, the British "discovered" the game during the "Empire" days and introduced it into England in the 1890s, and eventually it was marketed as a children's game.... [T]he American version is known as "Chutes and Ladders" and first appeared in the US in 1943.

Interesting that the Americans replaced the snakes with chutes! If the snakes were intended to convey a moral message, what does the substitution of chutes for snakes say about America and how we teach our children morality? Obviously, the snake is still a symbol in American-style morality teaching. Who escapes the story of Adam and Eve? Did the Chutes and Ladders people decide that children should only be told that there are pitfalls out there and not warned that there were evildoers who might tempt them? Or was it merely that a chute (a slide) made a more sensible counterpart to a ladder, something the children could easily visualize sliding down? Most likely, the American game designers just thought snakes were too scary for the little kids who would play this very easy game. It's frustrating enough to encounter a big setback, so why torment the kids with snakes. Make it like playground equipment.

One reason I think this last explanation is most reasonable is that Candyland (from 1949) is clearly based on Chutes and Ladders. Apparently, even those slides are a bit too frightening for youngsters, and having Candy-based pitfalls and shortcuts seemed much more appropriate. It was packaged as "A sweet little game for sweet little folks" -- if you can believe the marketing. But maybe you shouldn't believe the marketing. Maybe Candyland was part of the nefarious corporate plot to addict Americans to mass-produced foodstuffs.

UPDATE: I note that for the French-speaking, "Chute" would imply the snake-infested, morality story of Adam and Eve. But the French version of the game marketed in Canada keeps the snakes: "Serpents et Echelles." I also note that "Snakes and Ladders" has Biblical imagery not only in the snake, but in the ladder. Hmmm... I wonder if Prince was inspired by the Bible or if he played Chutes and Ladders when he was a kid. I'm guessing both.

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