v. played, play·ing, plays
1. To occupy oneself in an activity for amusement or recreation: children playing with toys.
a. To take part in a sport or game: He's just a beginner and doesn't play well.
b. To participate in betting; gamble.
a. To behave in a teasing or joking manner; act in jest or sport: She's not angry with you; she's just playing.
b. To deal or behave carelessly or indifferently, especially for one's own amusement; toy: She isn't interested in you; she's just playing with you.
4. To act or conduct oneself in a specified way: play fair; an investor who plays cautiously.
5. To act, especially in a dramatic production.
a. To perform on an instrument: play on an accordion.
b. To emit sound or be sounded in performance: The band is playing.
7. To be performed, as in a theater or on television: A good movie is playing tonight.
8. To be received or accepted: a speech that played poorly with the voters.
9. To move or seem to move quickly, lightly, or irregularly: The breeze played on the water.
10. To function or discharge uninterruptedly: The fountains played in the courtyard.
11. To move or operate freely within a bounded space, as machine parts do.
a. To engage in (a game or sport): play hockey; play chess.
b. To compete against in a game or sport: We play the Tigers today.
c. To compete in a game or sport at (a location): The New York Yankees played Fenway Park last night.
d. To occupy or work at (a position) in a game: Lou Gehrig played first base.
e. To put (a player) at a position in a sport or in a game: Let's play her at first base.
f. To use or move (a card or piece) in a game: play the ace of clubs
g. To hit (a ball, shot, or stroke), as in tennis: played a strong backhand.
h. To attempt to keep or gain possession or control of: No foul was called because he was playing the ball.
a. To perform or act (a role or part) in a dramatic performance.
b. To assume the role of; act as: played the peacemaker at the meeting.
c. To pretend to be; mimic the activities of: played cowboy; played the star.
a. To perform (a theatrical work or part of a work): The actors played the scene with great skill.
b. To present a theatrical performance or other entertainment in (a given place): The company played Boston last week.
a. To bet; wager: played ten dollars on the horse.
b. To make bets on: play the races.
a. To perform or put into effect, especially as a jest or deception: play a joke on a friend.
b. To handle; manage: played the matter quietly.
c. To use or manipulate, especially for one's own interests: played his opponents against each other.
a. To perform on (an instrument): play the guitar.
b. To perform (a piece) on instruments or an instrument.
7. To cause (a movie, audiotape, or other recording) to be presented in audible or visible form.
8. To discharge or direct in a certain direction: played the water on the burning roof.
9. To cause to move rapidly, lightly, or irregularly: play lights over the dance floor.
10. To exhaust (a hooked fish) by allowing it to pull on the line.
a. A literary work written for performance on the stage; a drama.
b. The performance of such a work.
2. Activity engaged in for enjoyment or recreation.
3. Fun or jesting: It was all done in play.
a. The act or manner of engaging in a game or sport: After a time-out, play resumed. The golf tournament featured expert play.
b. The act or manner of using a card, piece, or ball in a game or sport: my partner's play of the last trump; his clumsy play of the rebound.
c. A move or an action in a game: It's your play. The runner was thrown out in a close play.
5. Participation in betting; gambling.
6. Manner of dealing with others; conduct: fair play.
7. An attempt to obtain something; a bid: a play for sympathy.
a. Action, motion, or use: the play of the imagination.
b. Freedom or occasion for action; scope: give full play to an artist's talents.
9. Movement or space for movement, as of mechanical parts.
10. Quick, often irregular movement or action, especially of light or color: the play of color on iridescent feathers.
11. A control mechanism on an audio or video player that starts or resumes the audible or visual presentation of a recording.
12. A geological deposit, as of oil or natural gas, considered as a prospect for commercial extraction.
play along Informal
To cooperate or pretend to cooperate: decided to play along with the robbers for a while.
1. To participate in; engage in.
2. To do or take part in halfheartedly.
To replay (a recently recorded tape, for example).
To minimize the importance of; make little of: played down the defect to protect the troops' morale.
a. To establish the winner of (a tie) by playing in an additional game or series of games.
b. To participate in a playoff.
2. To set (one individual or party) in opposition to another so as to advance one's own interests: a parent who played off one child against another.
play on (or upon)
To take advantage of (another's attitudes or feelings) for one's own interests: demagogues who play on popular fears.
To use up; exhaust: Our strength was played out early in the contest.
To emphasize or publicize: She played up her experience during the job interview.
1. Sports In a position to be legally or feasibly played: The ball is now in play.
2. In a position, or rumored to be in a position of possible corporate takeover: The company's stock rose in price when it was said to be in play.
out of play Sports
Not in a position to be legally or feasibly played.
play ball Slang
To cooperate: The opposing attorneys refused to play ball with us.
play both ends against the middle
To set opposing parties or interests against one another so as to advance one's own goals.
play fast and loose
To behave in a recklessly irresponsible or deceitful manner: played fast and loose with the facts.
play for time
To use delaying tactics; temporize.
play games Slang
To be evasive or deceptive: Quit playing games and tell me what you want.
play hard to get
To pretend to be uninterested in a romantic relationship.
play in Peoria Slang
To be acceptable to average constituents or consumers.
play into (someone's) hands
To act or behave so as to give an advantage to an opponent.
play it by ear
To act according to the circumstances; improvise: I don't have a set schedule, so we'll have to play it by ear.
play (one's) cards Informal
To use the resources or strategies at one's disposal: played her cards right and got promoted.
To pretend to be sleeping or dead.
play the field
To date more than one person at the same time.
play the game Informal
To behave according to the accepted customs or standards.
play up to
To curry favor with.
play with a full deck Slang
To be of sound mind: didn't seem to be playing with a full deck.
play with fire
To take part in a dangerous or risky undertaking.
play with (oneself) Vulgar Slang
[Middle English playen, from Old English plegian; see dlegh- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2020 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices
Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:
The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.