Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Wild West Words: It’s a Gamble

Kathleen Rice Adams

Gambling has been a popular way to fill empty time almost as long as people have existed. Many modern words related to gambling saw their genesis in the 1300s. “Pasteboards,” slang for playing cards, arose in the 1540s because the cards were made of layers of paper pasted together. Roulette, in the gambling sense, originated in about 1725. Terms like “game of chance” (1920), “snake eyes” (1930), and Lady Luck (1935), on the other hand, didn’t arrive until the early 20th Century.

Gamblers, c. 1900. Artist unknown.
The following words and phrases, most of them slang appropriations of previously mundane words and phrases, sneaked into the language during the 1800s.

Ante: opening bet; American English poker slang. Noun form arose 1838; verb, 1846. Both are based, appropriately, on the Latin ante, meaning before.

Baccarat: As a card game, arose 1848. Variant spelling of the French word for the same game, baccara, which is of unknown origin.

Bank: to put money on. American colloquial usage arose c. 1884, based on the 1833 meaning “to deposit in a bank.”

Bankroll: roll of bank notes. American slang from 1887 as a conflation of “bank” and “roll,” the latter of which gained the slang meaning “quantity of paper money” in 1846.

Beginner’s luck: explanation for wins by the inexperienced. American slang c. 1897.

Big deal: in poker, a game-changing turn of the cards. Arose mid-19th century. The sarcastic phrase meaning “So what?” is American English from 1965.

Bilk: a cheat or to cheat. Although the 1651 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as a cribbage term meaning to spoil an opponent’s score by playing unusable cards, in the western U.S. after the Civil War, calling someone a bilk was about the worst insult one man could bestow upon another. “[T]he most degrading epithet that one can apply to another is to pronounce him ‘a bilk.’ No Western man of pluck will fail to resent such concentrated vituperation.” (A.K. McClure, Three Thousand Miles Through the Rocky Mountains, 1869)

"Gambling Down Below," illustration from
the Mark Twain story of the same name, 1883
Blackleg: gambler or swindler. Popular in the American West 1835-1870.

Bottom dollar: the last of one’s money; from 1882.

Bluff: the noun meaning subterfuge in cards dates to 1839 in the U.S., perhaps from the Dutch bluffen (to brag or boast) or verbluffin (to baffle or mislead). Bluff as an alternative name for poker is American slang from 1844. The verb bluffing, meaning misleading in poker, arose c. 1845; later generalized to misleading in any context.

Card sharp: shortened form of the American slang term card-sharper, which entered the lexicon in 1859.

Chip: counter used in a game of chance. Americanism; first recorded in print 1840. “When the chips are down” is from the 1940s as a reference to the pile of poker chips on the table after all bets are made.

Cleaned out: left penniless by losses; arose c. 1812.

Craps: game of chance employing dice. American English from the Louisiana French craps (“play a dangerous game”), based on an 18th-century Continental French corruption of the British “crabs,” which was slang for the lowest dice throw: two or three.

Crap out: a losing throw of two, three, or twelve in the dice game of craps. American slang, 1835-1845. Called “seven-out” when the player threw a seven instead of making his “point.”

Dead-man’s hand: a poker hand including two aces, two eights, and any other card. Yes, it really is based on the hand Wild Bill Hickock held at the moment of his 1876 assassination by Jack McCall.

Dough: money. From 1851.

Down on [one’s] luck: at a low point financially or personally. From 1832; possibly borrowed from gambling. “Be in luck” first appeared in print in 1900 but may be older; “push [one’s] luck” first appeared in 1911.

Draw a blank: come up with nothing. The image is from lotteries, c. 1825.

Face card: jack, queen, or king; c. 1826. Also called “court cards” because of the royal images.

Four-flusher: a cheater or sneak. Arose 1896 from the earlier verb four-flush (origin uncertain), meaning to bluff a flush while holding only four cards in the same suit.

Full house: poker term for three of a kind and a pair. 1887 American version of the 1850s British term “full hand.”

"The Gaming Table," Thomas Rowlandson, 1801
Gamble: a risky venture. Arose as slang in 1823. By 1879, the act of gambling. Apparently a remnant of the dialectical Middle English gamel (1590s), “to play games.” The B may have been added due to confusion with “gambol.”

Gouge: to cheat, swindle, or extort. Verb form attested 1880, probably from the 1560s gouge, meaning to cut with the tool of the same name.

Grand slam: in suit-based card games, to win a series of games; 1814. First use as a bridge term 1892.

Have a card up [one’s] sleeve: originally, the poker term was literal. Poker players would hide a winning card under their sleeve cuff and exchange it for a losing card the sly. Arose c. 1898.

High-roller: extravagant spender. American slang by 1873, probably originally as a reference to throwing dice.

Jackpot/jack-pot: big prize. From 1881, a series of antes that results when no player has an opening hand consisting of two jacks or better. The slot machine sense arose 1932; slang for a big win in any situation from about 1944.

Joker: non-royal face card in a poker deck, 1868. Probably a reference to the generic British slang use of the word to mean any man, fellow, or chap. Black Joke, a card game in which all face cards were called jokers, is mentioned in Hoyle’s 1857 edition of Games.

Kitty: pool of money in a card game. Arose 1887 from 1833 “kit,” meaning a collection of necessary supplies, with a possible contribution from the 1825 British slang “kit,” meaning prison or jail.

Lucky break/lucky strike: in billiards, at least one ball landing in a pocket after the opening collision of cue ball with the rack. Attested from 1884. Earlier meaning “fortunate failure” arose 1872. Lucky Strike as the name for a brand of pre-rolled cigarettes, 1872.

Monte: a particular card game, so called because of the heap of cards left after the deal. The game arose 1824, with the name probably borrowed from monte, Spanish for mountain. The game was especially popular during the California gold rush. Three-card version arose in Mexico in 1877.

Pass the buck: American slang, originally literal, 1865. A bone-handled knife, or “buck,” was laid on the table in front of the dealer to keep track during poker games. As the game progressed, the deal passed from player to player around the table, and so did the knife. Figurative sense “shift responsibility” first recorded in print 1912.

"Monte in the Mines," J.D.Borthwick, 1851
Penny-ante: insignificant; American slang. Originally an 1855 poker term for small stakes.

Play the trump card: slang for an unexpected winning move; from 1886. Originally “play the Orange card,” which meant “appeal to Northern Irish Protestant sentiment for political advantage.”

Poker: a particular card game that arose in America in 1834. Origin of the term is unknown, but perhaps from the German pochen, “to brag,” which itself arose from a slang corruption of the verb spelled the same way which meant “to knock or rap.” May also be related to French poque, a card game similar to poker, though that is undocumented.

Poker face: expressionless by intent. 1874 slang from a poker tactic disguising a bluff.

Risky: dangerous. Arose 1825 from “risk,” which itself was a 1728 anglicized version of the 1660s French risqué. “Risk-taker” is from 1894.

Showdown/show-down: lay down a poker hand face-up. From 1873; American slang. Figurative “final confrontation” arose 1904.

Stack the deck: cheat by unfairly arranging the cards in a deck before the deal. First recorded 1825.

Straight: a poker hand containing any sequential run of cards from different suits; arose 1841 from 1640s use of the term to mean “level.” By 1864, “straight” became slang for the straight part of a horse-racing track.

Straightaway: the flat, straight home stretch of a horse-racing track; 1839.

Stud poker: a form of poker in which the first card is dealt face-down and the others face-up. From 1864; antecedents unknown. The related term “hole card,” meaning the card dealt face-down, is an Americanism from 1905.

Swindle: cheat out of money. American English colloquialism from 1826.

Take a chance/take chances: do something with an uncertain outcome. From the 1815 usage meaning “participate in a lottery.” The related “take a risk” is first documented 1826, but may be older.

Tinhorn: of no value, but flashy. By 1857, from the earlier use referring to low-class gamblers who used a tin can to shake dice.

A Texan to the bone, Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperadoes. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen’s stories, even the good guys wear black hats.

Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the coveted 2015 Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun is the only western historical romance ever to receive a Peacemaker nomination in a book-length category.

Visit her hideout on the web at KathleenRiceAdams.com.


  1. Quite a list of gambling words, Kathleen, some I'd never have guessed its origins. Congrats again on your Peacemaker Award.

    1. You know what surprised me the most? Lucky Strike cigarettes were born in 1884. They're still around. Who knew?

      Thanks for coming by to comment! :-)

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you, Petit Hibou. How's your winter up there this year? Ours has been weird on this side of the border.


  3. What a way we have with words. I love to play poker even though my 14 year old niece can whoop me at it, so I've used some of these words. I had no idea where or when all these words originated until now. I'm likin' these words though. Now I know where people get the expression, "I'm all crapped out." Fun blog, Kathleen.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Sarah! You're more ladylike than I: I've used much worse words when playing poker. ;-)

  4. I knew some of these, probably about as many as some others know. It's odd how these gambling terms have crept into our everyday speech. And funny, too,I was not allowed to play cards of any kind growing up...we were members of a pretty basic Baptist Church, and we even signed pledges to promise never to play "cards." But I did learn how to play all kinds of card games, including pokek. And I do love to visit a casino..about once every five years! The photos are great! Thanks for the entertaing, informative post. Very good.

    1. Celia, I grew up Baptist, too. Some of the churches we attended in my youth were extremely strict. During their weekly fire-and-brimstone sermons, the preachers warned about the evils of all kinds of games of chance, "the Devil's brew," and dancing, among other things. To a kid, the message seemed to be that if it was fun, Satan was involved. To this day, I have relatives who are "hardshell" or "primitive" Baptists, and they still believe those things. They also believe women shouldn't cut their hair or wear pants, because the Devil creeps into those behaviors, too. In addition, they believe a woman's only purpose is to submit to her husband and raise children on a very narrow path of righteousness. As you might imagine, I've strayed a mite. ;-)

      The Rice family's first reunion since the 1940s took place in Decatur in the '80s in the middle of a blazing Texas summer. I was about 30 and worked for a daily newspaper, so I'd been exposed to all sorts of misbehavior. I'll never forget my mother warning me, "Now, Sister, don't wear shorts." I'm sure some of my distant cousins would've dropped to their knees and raised me up to Jesus on the spot if they'd known I'd visited one of those dens of iniquity called a casino. :-D

  5. Kathleen, this was not only informative, but fun. I loved the illustrations, too. Your posts are always a hit with me. And I had relatives that believed I'd strayed from the righteous path when I went to the few school dances we were allowed in Lubbock. Of course, those who protested most were those who caused the greatest harm in our family. Isn't that usually the way? Thanks for another great post.

  6. Caroline, I'm tickled to death you enjoyed the post! I'm fascinated by etymology, so I'm determined to inflict my research on everyone else. ;-) I had to look up the other meaning of crap this morning, to make sure I didn't stick it into a story set before the word arose in that context. The verb used to describe a bodily function arose in 1846; the noun meaning junk followed in 1898. I find it interesting that "crap" took on two very different meanings at about the same time.

    As for families, it's amazing how much damage family members can inflict upon one another, isn't it? Even the best of intentions sometimes go awry. :-(

  7. Canada Bill and George Devol played three-card monte all up and down the Mississippi River before and after the Civil War. You can find a bunch of terms in FORTY YEARS A GAMBLER ON THE MISSISSIPPI. One that I used in Sleight of Heart was "capper." We know them as shills, but in those days, "shill" was a term for someone who set up a person to get robbed at a carnival. The person who used less than savory means to draw people to the player (dealer) was called a capper during most of the 19th Century.

  8. Well Kathleen, I guess those terms could have been used in the northeast states, but I'd never heard of those three you listed on FB. And I do love to gamble and play cards too. After reading this wonderful assortment of terms, I must reread and write down some of them. So very interesting. They sure had quite the vocabulary back in those days. Thanks for a fun and very informative read.


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