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The Russian Wikipedia page for the 15-puzzle calls it пятнашки, while the Викисловарь page for пятнашки defines it as a children's running game. A native speaker I know, who hasn't lived in Russia for about 20 years, doesn't recall пятнашки being used as the name of the puzzle. Has the puzzle essentially always had the name пятнашки, or is that a very recent development?

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The running game салки (game of tag) has formerly been called пятнашки. Today, this word is only used for the puzzle game, which has been called игра в пятнадцать in the past. I'm not sure when the meaning changed... probably some 30-40 years ago.

It's interesting to note that Толковый словарь Ефремовой from 2000 still lists the original meaning, and doesn't even mention the puzzle game.

пятна́шки мн. Детская игра, по правилам которой следует попадать мячом в бегущего партнера или, догнав, коснуться его рукой.

In fact there isn't a single Russian dictionary which mentions the puzzle game, despite the fact that this has been the primary meaning of the word for at least two decades.

By the way, unlike with the puzzle game, the name of the running game comes from the word запятнать/пятно, not the number 15.

запятнать - [...] 4) разг. Тронуть, ударить рукой, мячом (при игре в пятнашки, в лапту).

The use of the word to describe the running game might be regional... from Салки > Названия

Простота правил, отсутствие необходимости в сложных приспособлениях, постройках и т. п. привели к чрезвычайной распространённости игры, получившей в различных регионах России и бывших союзных республик множество наименований. К примеру, простейший «бесконечный вариант» (см. выше раздел «Обычные салочки») игры имеет не менее 37 названий, например:

[...]

пятнашки (дотронуться — «запятнать») — Архангельская обл., Камчатский край, Горьковская обл. Оренбургская обл. (Россия); Могилев (Белоруссия); Западный Казахстан; Ташкент (Узбекистан); Эстония

[...]

Another interesting discussion of various local names of the running game: салки-пятнашки

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  • It definitely changed more than 30 years ago. The first time I saw this used for a running game is here. I never encountered this usage. I am 32, I live in Moscow.
    – Anixx
    Jan 8 '13 at 4:54
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Пятнашки is the 15-puzzle. The children's running game might have been called like that decades ago.

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From my distant memory of living in Ukraine (or at that time it was USSR), пятнашки was a children's running game. The word originated not from пятнадцать (15) but from пятно (mark, stain). The aim of the game was to run after one of your friends, catch up with him/her and touch them - запятнать (leave a mark). After that, the person that was marked would be the one catching somebody else. There is an English game with the same idea, called tag (or a game of tag). I will add that my niece who lived in Moscow for her entire life of 7 years plays this game with her friends and they still call it пятнашки, although word салки is also used.

The puzzle you refer to did exist 20 years ago, too, however it used to be called игра в 15 or something to that extent.

It's quite possible that the same word can mean two different things, especially in different geographical areas, therefore it probably isn't correct to state that one is right and the other is wrong.

For example, multitran.ru lists пятнашки as the game of tag in общая лексика, but also mentions the other game as well in general translation.

translate.ru only has one translation, tag.

google translate gives as the first option barley-break, which is another name for the game of tag. Yet, it also in further options mentions the sliding squares game.

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  • Thanks for explaining why the name of the children's game had the name пятнашки. I was wondering that too.
    – KCd
    Dec 28 '12 at 18:12
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According to the national corpus, the word "пятнашки" has been used most often to mean "a running game" since approximately mid-1800:

Аксютка бегал очень хорошо; он мастер был играть в пятнашки и на небольшом пространстве умел увертываться, делая неожиданные повороты то в ту, то в другую сторону. (1862)

[...] кончал же обыкновенно тем, что гнал его играть со своими детьми в прятки, пятнашки, горелки. (1888)

Когда говорят об игре в детском саду или в школе, то больше всего обычно говорят не об игре вообще, а об играх: игре в пятнашки, в кошки-мышки, в горелки, в крокет, в серсо. (1920)

Кто хочет играть в пятнашки? В палочку-выручалочку? (1940)

А ребята загалдели, начали гоняться в «пятнашки», кувыркаться на траве и делать стойки на руках. (1967)

Та отказалась и опять застыла, держа головку на поднятой шее, глядя без всякого чувства на дорогу, где, гоняясь друг за другом, играли в пятнашки мальчик и девочка ее лет. (1997)

The word has been adopted to mean a 15-kopek coin:

Тогда я вынул из кармана целую горсть нашей мелочи, остававшейся у меня, ― пятачки, двушки, пятнашки (1999)

А денег-то у меня нет! Только две пятнашки. (2001)

This gets us closer to the meaning from the Wikipedia: the game of 15 also uses 15 pieces, so "пятнашка" that means the number of kopeks can be re-used to mean the number of pieces. I distinctly remember this use of the word, so I was rather surprised to find only one example in the corpus to support this:

В случае шахматной доски нам нужно было лишь вспомнить о её существовании, а в случае доски для игры в «пятнашки» пришлось таковую раскраску ввести самим. (2000)

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  • Since пятнашки has, apparently, only been used as the name for the puzzle in the last couple of decades, I'm not surprised that there is more historical data for its usage as the children's game.
    – KCd
    Dec 28 '12 at 20:45
  • @KCd I was actually quite surprised to discover so few references to the "пятнашки" board game, because that is how I remember the game being called around me when I was growing up (i.e. mid-seventies). Dec 28 '12 at 20:58
  • @dasblinkenlight I think it's worth noting that although your examples come from 1999 and 2001, the 15-kopek coin does not exist nowadays. Dec 29 '12 at 1:14
  • @PhilipSeyfi Right - I think they got scrapped long before, in the early nineties. Dec 29 '12 at 1:17
  • @dasblinkenlight They remained in use until 1991. Another, possibly more common, term to denote them was пятиалтынник. Dec 29 '12 at 1:23

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