It was originally also used to indicate a riddle either in verse or prose, of which the listener must guess the meaning, often given syllable by syllable—see riddle. In France and Italy the word 'charade' still refers to this kind of written linguistic riddle.
Each team in turn produces a "secret" word or phrase, to be guessed by the other team, and writes it on a slip of paper. Rules vary as to which phrases are allowed; single words may be restricted to nouns as found in dictionaries, while multi-word phrases usually are required to be commonly used phrases, or common expressions for well-known concepts. Often the secret phrases allowed are confined to titles of books, songs, or movies.
The slip of paper with the secret phrase is revealed to one member of the other team, the "actor", but kept secret from the remainder of the other team, the "guessers".
The actor then has a limited period of time in which to convey the secret phrase to the guessers by pantomime.
The actor may not make any sounds or lip movements. In some circles, even clapping is prohibited, while in others, the player may make any sound other than speaking or whistling a recognizable tune.
The actor cannot point out at any of the objects present in the scene, if by doing so they are helping their teammates.
Most commonly, the actor is allowed to make any gestures other than blatantly spelling out the word. In more stringent sets of rules, indicating anything about the form of the phrase is prohibited, even the number of words, so that only the meaning may be acted out.
The guessers attempt to guess the word or phrase based on the actor's performance. They can ask questions, to which the actor may give non-verbal responses, such as nodding in affirmation. If any of the guessers says the correct word or phrase within the time limit in the literal form as written on the slip, their team wins that round; if the phrase is not guessed when the time limit expires, the team that produced the secret phrase wins the round.
The teams alternate until each team member has had an opportunity to be the actor.
Since so many rules can vary, clarifying all the rules before the game begins can avoid problems later.
Signals for common words
Some conventions have also evolved about very common words:
"A" is signed by steepling index fingers together. Following it with either the stretching rubber band sign or "close, keep guessing!" sign, will often elicit "an" and "and". (sometimes "and" is signed by pointing at ones palm with the index finger)
"I" is signed by pointing at one's eye, or one's chest.
"The" is signed by making a "T" sign with the index fingers. The "close, keep guessing!" sign will then usually elicit a rigmarole of other very common words starting with "th".
"That" is signed by the same aforementioned "T" with the index fingers and immediately followed by one flattened hand tapping the head for a "hat", thus the combination becoming "that". Following this with the "opposite" sign indicates the word "this."
Pretending to paddle a canoe can be used to sign the word "or."
For "on," make your index finger leap onto the palm of your other hand. Reverse this gesture to indicate "off." The off motion plus a scissor-snipping action makes "of".
Other common small words are signed by holding the index finger and thumb close together, but not touching.