When did the meaning of “scavenger hunt” change?

Since when did the meaning of the phrase “scavenger hunt” change so that it now refers to what is properly called a “treasure hunt”? When I was a kid, there was a clear distinction:

  • In a scavenger hunt, you were given a list of items to bring back (either the actual items or a photo or some other evidence) in any order.
  • In a treasure hunt, a sequence of clues let you from place to place in a specific order, and the prize was at the end.

This was a clear and useful distinction. But now it has gotten all muddied up. Over and over again in the past few years I have heard people at Weston say “scavenger hunt” when they mean “treasure hunt.” It’s very confusing. And yet it doesn’t seem to bother anyone! What’s the source of this travesty?

Let’s check some reference works. First, of course, everyone these days checks the trusty (or not-so-trusty) Wikipedia. It says, “A scavenger hunt is a game in which individuals or teams seek to find a number of specific items, or perform tasks, as given in a list. The goal is either to complete the list first, or to achieve the highest score within a given time limit.” Sounds like the correct meaning to me. Nothing about following sequential clues. There is a reference to the Great American Treasure Hunt, but that is indeed a treasure hunt in the traditional sense. So how did the meaning change? Or is this just a Weston anomaly, reflecting blissful ignorance of the real meaning of the word?

If Wikipedia is unconvincing, as it sometimes is, we’d better check some other reference works. Surely the American Heritage Dictionary is reliable and beyond reproach:

A game in which individuals or teams try to locate and bring back miscellaneous items on a list.

Finally, for those who think that even the American Heritage Dictionary is suspect, there’s good old reliable Nathan, I mean Merriam Webster:

a game in which players try to acquire without buying specified items within a time limit

So is Weston just being idiosyncratic? Or is this an all-of-Massachusetts thing? Inquiring minds want to know.

Categories: Life, Linguistics, Teaching & Learning, Weston