Mancala is arguably the oldest game in the world; archaeological remains in Jordan of it predate the development of agriculture in many areas. Apparently, the game was first written about by the Abbasids in the tenth century CE. They used the word manqala, which meant "to move", which is quite appropriate, since the whole point of the game is moving marbles. This word spread everywhere from Jordan to Malawi, but it notably entered the English language in the seventeenth century as mancala, the word we have today. Going back to the word manqala, we have no records on its origins (as is sadly the case with so many non-Indo-European terms), but I can tell you that it probably comes from a Proto-Semitic word, in turn from a root in the hypothesized Afro-Asiatic language. Due to recent commercialization, usage of the word mancala increased dramatically between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, but now it appears to be decreasing again.
Adam Aleksic is a 221-month-old, 2800-ounce high school senior with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law. Adam will be studying linguistics at Harvard University in the fall.
The Etymology Nerd