IN his pep talk to industrialists last week, Tony Blair said we in Britain must "raise our game" so as to compete in the international market - a sporting metaphor borrowed from the United States, meaning we must play harder. It's the latest version, if you like, of Henry Newbolt's shoulder-smiting captain telling a ninth-wicket batsman to play up, play up and play the game. (When an Edwardian housemaster's report said "I am pleased with his progress", he didn't need to explain that he meant progress on the games field.) Mr Blair's game-raising is not to be confused with a different kind of raising found in games such as poker and bridge, where it means upping the bidding or raising the stakes, perhaps in a reckless and unbusinesslike manner, improper in an industrialist.

The trouble with "game" metaphors is that too many of game's connotations tend to be rather dodgy. "Gaming" is a far less respectable word than "gambling", for example. To me, it still suggests desperate late-night throws in smoky basements, whereas gambling can mean just risk-taking. If someone is asked what his game is, it's not a question of whether he prefers tennis to golf. It means he must be up to something, and if it's a little game, it's going to be something underhand. (If he's rumbled, the game is said to be up, but that's from hunting and shooting; hunting was a game, then the word got transferred to the object of the game.)

Then prostitutes are said to be on the game, which may have something to do with the old meaning of game as amorous sport (sex romps in Sun language), though maybe not, for burglary has also been called the game. Anyway, game started out as meaning a bit of fun or merriment, paired with glee in medieval alliterative verse. It had a long way to go before Newbolt made it an aspect of the national character, or football commentators a kind of religion, or politicians used it to encourage us all to work harder for the same pay.