“Well played, sir!”

It has been suggested to me that this all-but-inescapable online bro-phrase is a NOOB, and after some investigation, I believe it. On the British origin, I give you “Well played”, or, The major’s dilemma, a 1894 farce by Arthur Francis Knight. There is a 1921 book called Well Played! by Andrew Home (also the author of From Fag to Monitor: or, Fighting to the Front). Then there is this from Shane Leslie’s 1922 The Oppidan:

As each member of his team came through he cast him a faithful look or a winged word, ‘Well played! You deserved to win and you will win next time.’ He stood there seeing his boys through the bitterness of a defeat which had hit himself hardest. Spectators passed him sympathetically. Morleyites seeing the symbol of the vanquished nudged each other and began rubbing in the defeat. ‘Well played, Morley’s! Morley’s! Morley’s! a goal to a rouge.’ There was a curiosity to see the visible effect. But nothing was there revealed except the well known accent of Jenkinson saying to the dishevelled players, ‘Well played Mr Morley’s, very well played indeed!’

As for American use, it’s everywhere, not only in gaming message boards but, for example, in this Dave Itzkoff post for Arts Beat blog of the New York Times. (He’s describing Betty White talking to Jay Leno about her experience on “Saturday Night Live.”)

Ms. White says, “Somebody grabs your hand, and you’re out horizontal back here, and they take you into something, a room smaller than this desk, and somebody’s taking your clothes off and somebody’s putting them back on——”

“No,” Mr. Leno says, interrupting. “I didn’t ask you how you got the job.”

Well played, Mr. Leno. Well played.





A key figure in U.S. adoption of the phrase appears to be Seth Rogen, who said it first in the 2008 “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and then in “Knocked Up” (the clip below), after being told that he was looks like “Babe Ruth’s gay brother … Gabe Ruth.”

Rogen’s signal contribution may have been ending with the word “sir.” JakeinSD posted an Urban Dictionary definition of “Well played my friend” in January 2008–that is before the release of “40 Year-Old Virgin”:

a statement of extreme agreement/praise for a particular activity that one of your friends has engaged in. can also be used sarcastically to point out a flaw in logic or action (example. when something is not well played, but you say it was in a sarcastic tone).
dude 1: did you get that girls number last night?
dude 2: not only did i get her number, i boned her and didn’t call her.
dude 1: well played my friend!

Clearly, more research is needed.

14 thoughts on ““Well played, sir!”

  1. I’ve always liked the variant “Well played, that man!”, sometimes said at cricket events, with its vague hint of aristocratic condescension that you don’t know (or decline to use) the recipient’s name.

  2. Hmm. Now you have me wondering what exactly constitutes a Britishism. Is every phrase that originates in Britain and then migrates across the Atlantic a Britishism? “Well played” is not slang, nor is it a substitute for an existing American expression (except maybe “well done!” which probably started out over there, too, and has a slightly different meaning anyway). It’s just a phrase that people in the UK started using and that Americans have picked up. It’s not uniquely British, like “loo” or “randy” or “straightaway.” It’s ordinary English that is immediately understandable to an American without being filtered through a trans-Atlantic translator. Just because a British guy said it first, is it a Britishism?

    I’m not trying to be contrary; I just wonder what makes a word or expression a Britishism, as opposed to being a universal expression that happened to originate in the UK.

  3. “Is every phrase that originates in Britain and then migrates across the Atlantic a Britishism?’ Pretty much, yes, except not just “originates” in Britain but is commonly said there.

  4. “Well played, Katherine!” appears in either “The Lion in Winter” or “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, way back in the 1970’s, about English events in the twelfth or sixteenth centuries. Possibly both.

  5. At cricket matches up and down the land, you will often hear a shortened version of this phrase. When a batsman makes a particularly fine stroke or perhaps deals cleverly with a yorker or a googly, you will shouts of ‘Played!’ I think a batsman is generally more likely to receive this accolade than a bowler or fielder as it is he or she who is ‘playing’ the ball.

  6. The phrase does originate with reference to the game of cricket. And yes, is usually used by a fielding player as good meaning banter by an opposing (fielding player) to the batsman, when he plays a particularly good shot, (usually a boundary or a six) or as is more often the case when he returns strike on a very difficult delivery (from the bowler). In every day english it is used to give recognition to a person’s achievement or success against the odds (usually in a business or sales context). And yes I’m an English man who loves cricket.

  7. “well played sir!” is british but is very much rooted in class, specifically upper class. No lower/working/blue collar person would be caught saying it.

  8. In the first episode of “Clerks: The Animated Series”, in 2000, the dastardly villain Leonardo Leonardo (played by Alec Baldwin) utters, “Well played, clerks.” This was associated with the character as a catch phrase, and is the way the phrase entered into common usage among my friends.

    That’s significantly earlier than other pop-culture sourcings noted in this article.

  9. A little late to the party, but in the movie “Becket” (1964), Henry II (played by Peter O’Toole) says “Well played Thomas” when Becket escapes trial in the King’s court with the implied threat of excommunication. Didn’t catch it the first time I watched the movie as I am on the American side of the pond and did not know of the meme yet.

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