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Reading some buzzfeed article I saw someone claiming that in their part of the world they say "paper, scissors, rock" As the article mentions, this seems crazy wrong to most Americans and to me.

Thinking about it, is there a good reason we say the words in that order. I know there are concepts that make us say "tic toc", or describe objects from abstract to specific. Is there some reason we like "rock, paper, scissors" so much, or is it just familiarity that makes anything else seem wrong?

At first glance it looks like the words get more complex as you go, but I don't know if that's a pattern we prefer.

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  • We say (in a different language) rock, scissors, paper. I have no idea if any sound pattern makes it better sounding or not. Nov 5, 2021 at 9:02
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    There may of course be some linguistic reason for this order, whether semantic (as suggested in the question) or prosodical (as suggested in Yellow Sky's answer). I don't see at all why the question is off topic.
    – Keelan
    Nov 5, 2021 at 10:01
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    In my youth (UK) it was always "scissors, paper, stone", but RPS seems to have become standard. More on this from Lynneguist
    – AakashM
    Nov 5, 2021 at 13:25
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    In Australia it's definitely "Scissors, paper, rock".
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 6, 2021 at 0:24
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    Why is this off topic? It would be linguistically interesting if there were a semantic or phonetic principle underlying this order of words
    – Robin
    Nov 7, 2021 at 10:59

1 Answer 1

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In Russian, the sequence is “rock, scissors, paper”: камень, ножницы, бумага (kámen’, nóžnitsy, bumága). The most obvious reason for this very sequence is that it makes a trochaic tetrameter verse, like Double, double, toil and trouble or Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater.
The “paper, scissors, rock” sequence is also trochaic, namely, it is catalectic trochaic trimeter — three trochaic feet with the last one incomplete (catalectic): “paper, scissors, rock”, and that seems to be the only reason for such an arrangement.
In the languages that have exactly those three items in this game, all the 6 possible arrangements are used in the name of the game, making up a verse in some languages and no verse in others. For in-game reasons, none of the 6 possible arrangements is “better”, since in every possible arrangement the items are in the hierarchic sequence, either ascending or descending.

There is no special reason other than tradition and habit that makes the sequence “rock, paper, scissors” seem “more correct” to you.

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  • I am wondering whether the stress on the last word when in-game reciting in Czech makes papír (short-long) better sounding in the final position than the other two (long-short). The stress accent is the same on the first syllable for all of them (all two syllable). The order is the same as in Russian, but the words sound quite differently. Nov 5, 2021 at 9:57
  • After trying to reteach my brain for a day to a new order I think I notices that it's important that people who end with "scissors" say "shoot" often. If you don't ending in "rock" feels most natural as it gives you a good beat to throw the shape. But besides that I think you are right and the order is arbitrary.
    – Andrey
    Nov 5, 2021 at 11:40
  • I'm not buying the "catalectic trochaic trimeter", though I am in no place to argue about it (I think scissors may be problematic w.r.t. to prosody, for what it's worth). Rather, I suggest that the commentator in question was not speaking about English and instead has translated their form without clearly indicating. It is scissors, stone, paper (Schere, Stein, Papier) Don't ask me about meter but it swings; also klick-klack-kluck and what not. It's notable that meter is important when the phrase is said each beat matching a swing of the fist, until the fist is opened to reveal.
    – vectory
    Nov 9, 2021 at 19:17
  • Oops, I see @AakashM confirmed the English reading. I want say that not-English is entirely subjective, but since I as ESL do understand AmE fairly well and BrE not really, and neither one understands me even on paper, I'd come down with a triangular argument, not to say circular
    – vectory
    Nov 9, 2021 at 19:24

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