Monday, 29 October 2012

Missing a trick

Emerging from the NT shop at Lacock Abbey I said (of an omission that needn't detain us) 'They missed a trick there'. And that set me off to thinking about idioms (and even single words) based on card ganes.
  • When someone misses a trick they fail to make the most of the cards they are dealt
  • When they are secretive they play their cards close to their chest
  • When they follow suit they respond in kind
  • When they come up trumps they pull off an unexpected coup, revealing powers thitherto unexpected
  • Their secret advantage is their trump card
  • Trump can even be used as a verb ('That trumps my proposal')
  • Someone who hides something to their advantage has one or more cards up their sleeve
  • Their characteristic advantage is their long suit 
  • When they act so as to invite a strong response they play into your hand
  • When they act with nous they play their cards right 
  • A reliable person is a straight dealer
  • ... [I'm sure others will come to me]
From across the pond come several others, such as poker face, ace in the hole, and passing the buck. I have met many explanations of the provenance of this 'buck', ranging from a piece of buckskin to a buckskin-handled knife. But it is always a token that circulates to mark who is dealer - the ultimate authority; in Wild West gambling saloons it (the knife) was even said to be stuck in the table (ruining the baize, presumably).

Also from the USA of course was the famous Edmond Hoyle, whose book is still in print after two centuries. If you do something according to Hoyle you do it 'by the book' (and I wonder if that's the Bible or Hoyle).

From my background in languages I have racked my brains trying to think of examples in other languages; I'm sure there must be some. But the only one I can call to mind is rather a literary one - paciencia y barajar, often attributed to Miguel de Cervantes - as it was used in El Quijote.  But Cervantes shares with Shakespeare, in this respect at least, the status of 'linguistic Hoover'.  As David Crystal says in The Stories of English:
[A] 'first recorded usage', for any author, actually tells us very little about whether that author coined the word. Shakespeare may have been the first person recorded as using the oaths 'sblood ('God's blood') and 'slid ('God's lid') but he certainly did not invent such everyday expressions.
Similarly, I imagine Kenny Rogers wasn't the first to say 'You gotta know when to hold 'n when to fold', although it's hard to avoid his name when doing a Google search for the phrase. [There's another one; they get everywhere.]

But revenons à nos moutons  - paciencia y  barajar. Surely this idiom was in use in Spain as an expression of doing your best with the cards you're given and hoping for better fortune after the deck's been shuffled. Cervantes was, like Autolycus, a 'snapper up of unconsidered trifles'.

Please add, in Comments, to my list - especially in other languages. As I said, I'm sure English is not alone in this frequent reference to card games; but my exposure to cards in a foreign context is limited to an exchange visit in my early teens when I played more games of Trente-et-un than there were rain clouds in the Normandy sky.


+ various updates to the footer, the most recent being on 2013.10.06.12:05

Update 2014.12.0716:55 – added PS and updated footer.

PS Commentary on the latest débâcle in Sri Lanka...
and why FFS does the continuity wallah on 5 Live Sports Extra have to refer to 'the coveted third round'? Isn't a round a rather odd thing to covet. Neighbour's wife, OK, covetable (though not in the case of Li'l Miss Lebensraum). What football clubs covet is a place in the third round [of the FA Cup].
...reminded me of another function of metaphors; they invite organic imagery, bringing in new words that aren't established metaphors. One commentator said 'Ali is Morgan's trump card... [all very well – an established metaphor that any native speaker is likely to understand]...and this pair are drawing trumps'. Drawing trumps isn't a metaphor in current usage. It's what a bridge player does when leading a card that will force the opponents to play their trumps at an early stage, so that at the end of the hand the side that have drawn trumps will have supremacy. Returning to the ODI ('Oh Dear, 'Im'), Sangakarra and Jayawardene were playing so effortlessly as to force Morgan to use up Ali's limited quota of overs early on, so as to reduce Morgan's fire-power [I've already done armaments here] during the last overs (when a chasing side will typically score more freely than in the earlier overs).

 Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?) 

And here it is: Digraphs and Diphthongs . The (partial) index has an entry for each vowel pair that can represent each monophthong phoneme. For example AE, EA and EE are by far the most common pairs of vowels used to represent the /i:/ phoneme, but there are eight other possibilities. The index uses colour to give an idea of how common a spelling is, ranging from bright red to represent the most common to pale olive green to represent the least common.

I'm thinking about doing a native iBook version in due course, but for now Mac users can use Kindle's own (free) simulator.

Also available at Amazon: When Vowels Get Together: The paperback.

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this

Freebies (Teaching resources:  
nearly 48,200 views  and over 6,500 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with over 2,400 views and nearly 1,000 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.


  1. Thanks Charlie. We also have 'put your cards on the table'; and if you win easily you win 'hands down'.

    I hadn't met 'sota'; it sounds rather submissive. In the card game Bridge, the partner of 'the declarer' starts (after the bidding) by laying Dummy's cards face up; and Dummy plays no controlling part in the play - just playing whichever card s/he's told to. Dummy is a player rather than a card though.


    1. I just thought of something else. There's the expression "cantar las cuarenta a alguien" meaning "to tell someone off". The expression is a play in (at least) two different card games: guiñote and tute. The combination of the King and Jack (sota) or the King and Horse (the equivalent of the French deck's Queen) of the trump suit gives the holder forty (cuarenta) points, when they "chant/sing" ("cantar", meaning simply "announce") that they hold the pair and show it to the other players at the table. And of course, the expression "tener una mano ganadora" for "having/holding the upper hand", especially used in negotiations. I'll keep thinking, I'm sure more'll come up (and maybe also in other languages).

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. This was Carlos' post, to which the apparently first post was a reply! (To fix a typo I had to delete the original.) Here's his post:

      "In Spanish, we have "tener un as en la manga" for "cards up the sleeve"; "poner las cartas sobre la mesa/poner las cartas boca arriba" to mean "let's be honest, no tricks played, here are my moves/choices". Also, in the Spanish deck, the "Jack" is known as "sota", an expression sometimes used to mean "prostitute" (although mostly in literary texts)."

  2. Thank you for bringing that large collection of common English and American idioms related to playing cards to my attention. While I have often used idioms in classes, I have never focused on playing cards or recognized how useful these expressions can be for English language learners.