a very brief history of the streak

I’m proud to report that I’m on a 250 day streak of learning Spanish on Duolingo, a language education app. As I arrive at this momentous occasion that will earn me another achievement badge recognizing that I’ve devoted at least 5 minutes everyday for the past 250 days to learning Spanish, I pause to consider: where did this idea of the streak even come from?

From just memory, I’d say my first encounter with the word comes from my childhood in South Africa hearing about people running naked across the field during cricket games. It may have occurred to me then that it was the most exciting thing that would happen in that sport.

The idea of the streak is related to another domain of sports, though, and that’s the idea of consecutive wins or winning streaks, an “uninterrupted sequence of successes in games or competitions.”1 It can apply to both wins and losses. In Seattle right now, the Seattle’s Sounders FC are on a losing streak ending 13 consecutive years of making the playoffs while the Mariners have had a winning streak that’s ended a 20 consecutive year playoff drought.

Did the streak come from the slash on the tally mark?
“counting IIII” by marfis75 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Etymologically, the word streak shares Old English origins with the word strike meaning “line of motion, stroke of a pen”. With kicks, swings, bats, sticks, and balls in motion it is not hard to see the evolution of streaks and strikes to sports and sorts. Nor is it hard to see in the stroke of a pen or of a chalk on the board. Signifying the number five, the slash of the four line bundle of the tally mark crosses the threshold for counting a streak of wins or losses.

Sometime in the late 1880s, “winning streak” appeared in print and quickly took over from “streak of luck” in sports writing.

Streak of fortune. Streak of luck. Good streak in gambling. The earliest reference in newspapers that I could find to the idea of a “winning streak” is from August 29, 1885 in The Bridgeport Morning News: “The Bridgeport club had a winning streak and added another victory to its string by defeating the Newark club at the Barnum grounds yesterday.”2 Before this, the more common phrase in newspapers appears to be “streak of luck” as a sad story about a person that fished money out of the water illustrates.3

Baseball became a national pastime and a professional sport during the late 1800s. I wonder if in the professionalization of the sport that winning became less to do with luck and more to do with effort.

Duolingo measures streaks with one lesson per day and represents it with a calendar and badges that can be shared with friends.

As an accomplishment in our individual control, the streak becomes a component of design. To design it is very straightforward. Identify a desired repetitive action, find a good way to track it, and present the tracked action in a way that supports repetition.4 A simple plan well executed in Duolingo and The New York Time’s Wordle game. With both these examples, a clear image that can be shared with friends adds to the quality of the streak presentation – even if it isn’t necessarily a representation of the streak in the case of Wordle.

Yesterday, Erica and I celebrated our anniversary. Like sports there is a sense of profession in the effort and technique it takes to keep a home and to parent. Anniversaries are so often celebrated like a winning streak with the turn of a number to celebrate and an image evoking happiness of another to share, we declare this our accomplishment. At least the image is, but for me the early 1800s idea of the streak strikes back. In our marriage of 17 years, I feel the streak of luck for this friendship, union, and home. For this I’m grateful.


  1. Winning Streak, Wikipedia.
  2. Fine Work by Bridgeport, The Bridgeport Morning News, Aug 29, 1885
  3. The Milan Tribune, April 2, 1850
  4. “How to design a great streak”, Dr Zac Fitz-Walter.
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