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Expressions from card games
Posted: 22 November 2008 09:26 AM   [ Ignore ]
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The Guardian has a trivia article today about card games which ends:

A few common English phrases taken from the table: on the cards, play your cards right, steal a march (euchre), not my strong suit, streets ahead (cribbage), ace up your sleeve, beats me, call your bluff, high roller, pass the buck, up the ante, when the chips are down, left in the lurch, raw deal, follow suit, come up trumps

I didn’t know streets ahead, steal a march, left in the lurch and pass the buck were from cards and had assumed high roller was from rolling dice in craps, a game I only know from Hollywood movies (though the writer does say from the table).  Others I can think of are “a few cards short of a full deck/pack” (from the “a few sandwiches short of a picnic” formula) and “he’s dealing from the bottom of the deck/pack” meaning duplicitous or untrustworthy.

Also, if cards are used for divination isn’t it “in the cards” not on? Presumably “on” in gambling means “depending on” and these are entirely distinct usages.

There must be many more expressions from gaming…

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Posted: 22 November 2008 09:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I don’t know about streets ahead: nothing in OED to suggest a linkage to cards. By a street, meaning by a wide margin, does have a sporting origin, but that’s racing.

street, n. and adj.

Phrases, P7

c. streets ahead (also better): far ahead of someone or something, far superior.

1885 Freeman’s Jrnl. (Dublin) 10 Oct. 6/6 M J Hayes..won streets ahead of a very weak opposition. 1898 Westm. Gaz. 1 Feb. 6/3 The English are better photographers than the Americans, but as regards mechanical ingenuity..the latter are streets ahead. 1911 Times 22 Apr. 8 In the matter of nutriment Manitobas were ‘streets’ ahead of any flour that could be produced from English wheat. 1958 Times 27 Oct. 4 His distribution was streets better than that of Greenwood, who was always in trouble. 2005 Daily Tel. 27 Oct. B 5 The company [sc. Toyota] is streets ahead of GM on profitability.

d. by a street: by a wide margin (originally of a sporting victory).

1886 City of London School Mag. 10 166 [Monroe’s] best performance was the Quarter Mile under fourteen, which he ‘won by a street’. 1896 Fores’s Sporting Notes 13 4 ‘Won by a street,’ repeated Dick, thoughtfully… ‘Well, I’ll buy him, then, and if he can’t win the Grand Annual, I shall be very much astonished.’ 1952 Times 13 Aug. 2 Compton fought the spin of Laker..with all the skill and experience at his command… Had Compton gone Surrey would have been home by a street. 1982 Age Monthly Rev. (Melbourne) Mar. 11/3 Any label embracing such a wide range of usage is too wide by a street. 2000 M. BEAUMONT e 165 They’d done a campaign for 7UP… It was the best thing they had by a street.

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Posted: 22 November 2008 12:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I beg you not to take your ideas of etymology from the dear old Grauniad.

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Posted: 22 November 2008 04:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Although you can indeed “make a march” in euchre, the phrase “steal a march” is a military metaphor, surely far older than that game.

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Posted: 22 November 2008 08:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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what about “to take someone down a peg”, or for that matter “to peg out”, let alone an expression not often heard in polite society: “....and one for his nob” (or “...for his nibs") --- all from the noble game of Cribbage.

When I play Cribbage with anyone, they usually end up streets ahead, but I`ve never heard the phrase used in connection with the game.

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Posted: 22 November 2008 09:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Although you can indeed “make a march” in euchre, the phrase “steal a march” is a military metaphor, surely far older than that game.

Indeed. The OED has “steal a march” from the early 18th century, with the earliest citation for euchre coming from the mid-19th.

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Posted: 23 November 2008 07:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Also, if cards are used for divination isn’t it “in the cards” not on? Presumably “on” in gambling means “depending on” and these are entirely distinct usages.

Yes, they are different usages. On the cards simply means card-playing. The OED marks it as obsolete and the current form is at cards.

High roller is a bit curious. I had always assumed that it was indeed from craps, but thinking about it I’m not so sure of that assumption. First, it’s an odd formulation for craps. You don’t necessarily attempt to roll high in that game and rolling the highest, a twelve, is craps and a bad thing. Although it could refer to another dice game, I suppose. And of course, the high could be a reference to importance rather than score. The cites in the OED and HDAS are no help; they don’t narrow it down other than an origin in gambling.

The OED indicates that the roller may refer to a wave. It marks this with a ?, so it seems the editors were not sure of this. I never would have made that leap, but maybe they’ve got something in their files that makes this plausible.

I still think craps is the most likely origin, but I’m no longer as certain as I was before.

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Posted: 23 November 2008 12:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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The sense of it is one who make high (large) wagers, not necessarily one who makes high scores, so I wouldn’t get too hung up on the fact that a high roll is not always a winning roll in craps.  Still, I don’t know of any evidence that favors craps over any other dice game as the origin, other than its being the most widespread and familiar casino dice game.

That “wave” thing seems pretty strange to me.  Moreover, the OED (2nd ed.) lists no sense for “roller” that covers a player in a dice game whose turn it is to roll the dice.  It seems to me that they’ve missed a trick (there’s another card-game-derived expression, I think).

[ Edited: 23 November 2008 12:17 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 23 November 2008 04:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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The only ones that are legitimately from card games are those that are from card games played on ships.

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Posted: 23 November 2008 04:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I see your CANOE and raise you...

That must be the explanation for “high roller"--sailors betting on whether the next wave would wash over the gunwales.

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Posted: 23 November 2008 04:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Dr. Techie - 23 November 2008 04:43 PM

That must be the explanation for “high roller"--sailors betting on whether the next wave would wash over the gunwales.

And washed the son-of-a-gun overboard.

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Posted: 24 November 2008 05:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Speaking of card games, the names of the games themselves can be interesting.

Bridge, for instance, has no etymological connection with the bridge that spans a road, river, etc, the latter coming from Old English brycg with many cognates in Teutonic languages. For the card game OED has:

Etym. unascertained; prob. of Levantine origin, since some form of the game appears to have been long known in the Near East; the origin of the seemingly Russian forms biritch, britch, is unknown; an unrecorded Turkish form *bir-üç ‘one-three’ (since one hand is exposed and three concealed) was postulated as the source in N. & Q. (1969), 430-1.

Another card game which suggests bridges may also be deceptive. Pontoon is, says OED, “Apparently alteration of VINGT-ET-UN n., after PONTOON n.” Pontoon itself (the bridge) comes from Latin ponto, flat-bottomed boat, ferry, punt.

I’m surprised that CANOEISTS haven’t tried to claim bridge for their own, the faux origin writes itself: On long sea voyages the captain and senior officers would while away time on the bridge by playing a card game, usw.

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Posted: 24 November 2008 07:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Does anyone still say singular “die”?
I read about an Etruscan die that has survived but no one knows for certain what numbers the symbols represent or if it conforms to the opposing 6:1, 4:3, 5:2 adding up to 7 configuration we use. And, sure enough, under Etruscan numerals, wiki has:

Thanks to the numbers written out on the Tuscania dice, there is agreement about the fact that zal, ci, huθ and śa are the numbers up to 6 (besides 1 and 5). The assignment depends on the answer to the question whether the numbers on opposite faces on Etruscan dice add up to seven, like nowadays. It is a fact that some dice found don’t show this proposed pattern.

In The Etruscan Language: An Introduction by Giuliano Bonfante and Larissa Bonfante, 2002, they refer to a set of dice and a die. (I can’t cut and paste the relevant bit but here is the link: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=VWGN6e5Rzf8C&pg=PA94&lpg=PA94&dq=tuscania+dice&source=web&ots=OcV3OJweMp&sig=MiA3kqdxw9k_frI9av_oQjhICZE&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result) and it deals with numbers.

Off-topic, Ive always wondered why no Etruscan bilingual has ever shown up considering how recent and widespread the language was and its proximity to other languages that have survived in written form, etc.

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Posted: 24 November 2008 08:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Does anyone still say singular “die”?

Sure; how else would you say it?

By the way, could you edit your comment to make that URL a link (like this, using the <a> function in the formatting toolbar above the text box) so it doesn’t screw up the page width?  Thanks!

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Posted: 24 November 2008 09:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Sure; how else would you say it?

I’ve heard “a dice” fairly often.  Doing a Google search, I was distressed to see that the first real hit for this (i.e., omitting cases where dice was an attributive noun, punning business names using pair-a-dice, etc.) was from New Scientist!  And they defend it (in the comments) by citing the OED*. O tempora! O mores!

I second LH’s comment about the outsize URL.

*Actually, it seems to me that the fellow who cites the OED fudges what it actually says.

[ Edited: 24 November 2008 09:11 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 24 November 2008 12:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Marvellous little morsel in that OED etymology for die. It concerns the word truce.

As in pence, the plural s retains its original breath sound, probably because these words were not felt as ordinary plurals, but as collective words; cf. the orig. plural truce, where the collective sense has now passed into a singular. This pronunciation is indicated in later spelling by -ce: ..........

And checking the relevant entry we find that truce is indeed nothing more than the plural of true (ME. trewe and triewe), ‘truth or fidelity to a promise, good faith, assurance of faith or truth, promise, engagement, covenant, league’. As both warring parties would give pledges or engagements, “trews, trewse, truse, truce, became the received singular, with a new plural, truses, truces, when required.”

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