Nearby words

  1. plauen,
  2. plausibility,
  3. plausible,
  4. plausive,
  5. plautus,
  6. play a losing game,
  7. play a waiting game,
  8. play agent,
  9. play along,
  10. play around


Origin of play

before 900; (noun) Middle English pleye, Old English plega; (v.) Middle English pleyen, Old English pleg(i)an (cognate with Middle Dutch pleien to leap for joy, dance, rejoice, be glad)

2. show. 3. diversion, pastime. Play, game, sport refer to forms of diverting activity. Play is the general word for any such form of activity, often undirected, spontaneous, or random: Childhood should be a time for play. Game refers to a recreational contest, mental or physical, usually governed by set rules: a game of chess. Besides referring to an individual contest, game may refer to a pastime as a whole: Golf is a good game. If, however, the pastime is one (usually an outdoor one) depending chiefly on physical strength, though not necessarily a contest, the word sport is applied: Football is a vigorous sport. 18, 19. liberty. 23. enact. 25. personate, impersonate. 30. use. 32. bet. 33. back. 45. sport, frolic, romp, revel. 47. dally.

Related forms Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

British Dictionary definitions for play it by ear



to occupy oneself in (a sport or diversion); amuse oneself in (a game)
(tr) to contend against (an opponent) in a sport or gameEd played Tony at chess and lost
to fulfil or cause to fulfil (a particular role) in a team gamehe plays defence; he plays in the defence
(tr) to address oneself to (a ball) in a gameplay the ball not the man
(intr; often foll by about or around) to behave carelessly, esp in a way that is unconsciously cruel or hurtful; trifle or dally (with)to play about with a young girl's affections
(when intr, often foll by at) to perform or act the part (of) in or as in a dramatic production; assume or simulate the role (of)to play the villain; just what are you playing at?
to act out or perform (a dramatic production)
to give a performance in (a place) or (of a performance) to be given in a place
(intr) to be receivedHow will these policies play in Middle England?
to have the ability to perform on (a musical instrument)David plays the harp
to perform (on a musical instrument) as specifiedhe plays out of tune
  1. to reproduce (a tune, melody, piece of music, note, etc) on an instrument
  2. to perform works by (a specific composer)to play Brahms
to discharge or cause to dischargehe played the water from the hose onto the garden
to operate, esp to cause (a record player, radio, etc) to emit sound or (of a record player, radio, etc) to emit (sound)he played a record; the radio was playing loudly
to move or cause to move freely, quickly, or irregularlylights played on the scenery
(tr) stock exchange to speculate or operate aggressively for gain in (a market)
(tr) angling to attempt to tire (a hooked fish) by alternately letting out and reeling in line and by using the rod's flexibility
to put (a card, counter, piece, etc) into play
to gamble (money) on a game
play ball informal to cooperate
play fair or play fair with someone to prove oneself fair in one's dealings
play false or play fair with someone to prove oneself unfair in one's dealings
play by ear See ear 1 (def. 19)
play for time to delay the outcome of some activity so as to gain time to one's own advantage
play into the hands of to act directly to the advantage of (an opponent)
play the fool See fool 1 (def. 7)
play the game See game 1 (def. 22)


a dramatic composition written for performance by actors on a stage, on television, etc; drama
  1. the performance of a dramatic composition
  2. (in combination)playreader
  1. games, exercise, or other activity undertaken for pleasure, diversion, etc, esp by children
  2. (in combination)playroom
  3. (as modifier)play dough
manner of action, conduct, or playingfair play
the playing or conduct of a game or the period during which a game is in progressrain stopped play
US and Canadian a move or manoeuvre in a gamea brilliant play
the situation of a ball that is within the defined area and being played according to the rules (in the phrases in play, out of play)
a turn to playit's my play
the act of playing for stakes; gambling
action, activity, or operationthe play of the imagination
freedom of or scope or space for movementtoo much play in the rope
light, free, or rapidly shifting motionthe play of light on the water
fun, jest, or jokingI only did it in play
call into play to bring into operation
make a play for informal
  1. to make an obvious attempt to gain
  2. to attempt to attract or seduce

Derived Formsplayability, nounplayable, adjective

Word Origin for play

Old English plega (n), plegan (vb); related to Middle Dutch pleyen

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for play it by ear
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

Culture definitions for play it by ear

play it by ear

To improvise: “Rather than plan an elaborate strategy, Andy decided to play it by ear.” Music played by ear does not follow written notes.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Idioms and Phrases with play it by ear


In addition to the idioms beginning with play

  • play along
  • play a losing game
  • play around
  • play at
  • play a waiting game
  • play back
  • play ball
  • play both ends against the middle
  • play by ear
  • play cat and mouse
  • play down
  • played out
  • play fair
  • play false
  • play fast and loose
  • play footsie
  • play for
  • play for keeps
  • play for laughs
  • play for time
  • play games
  • play hardball
  • play hard to get
  • play havoc
  • play hide and seek
  • play hooky
  • play in Peoria
  • play into the hands of
  • play it close to one's chest
  • play it cool
  • play it safe
  • play musical chairs
  • play off
  • play on
  • play one's cards close to one's chest
  • play one's cards right
  • play one's trump card
  • play on words
  • play out
  • play politics
  • play possum
  • play safe
  • play second fiddle
  • play the devil with
  • play the field
  • play the fool
  • play the game
  • play the heavy
  • play the market
  • play to the gallery
  • play up
  • play upon
  • play up to
  • play with fire

also see:

  • all work and no play
  • child's play
  • devil's advocate, play
  • fair play
  • foul play
  • game that two can play
  • grandstand play
  • in play
  • make a play for
  • musical chairs, play
  • squeeze play
  • trump card, play one's
The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.