Tag Archives: old card games

The Obscure Origins of the Game of Poker


This morning, for some strange reason, my mind is on the game of poker. Not the poker you use to stir up your fire (which dates to the 1530s in English and yes, it does relate to being a object used to poke the fire).

As I’ve found before when looking at words around card playing, there’s little definitive clarity to be found when it comes to poker. This seems appropriate to me as a total poker amateur. On the rare nights when our family sits down for a game we all have to refer to the sheet of rules on which hands beat others. I suspect this means we would be easy prey for any hustler in a hundred mile radius. Luckily we play only for the plastic chips, and the bragging rights of being the winner.

Sadly this is not the hand I usually get when playing

Bragging is appropriate as it turns out. An earlier version of the game was called Brag. I think I recall them playing it in Jane Austen novels?

Even if you’ve never played a hand of poker in earnest I’m sure you’ve seen it played in movies – by cowboys in a saloon, gangsters in a back room, or grifters in a casino. The game first appeared around the late 1820s, perhaps starting amongst riverboat gamblers on the great Mississippi river. As a result the word entered English with thanks to the Americans.

It wasn’t entirely American however. There was an earlier card game called Pochspiel in German. Spiel means play or game, and the Poch part of the word comes from pochen (the verb to brag or bluff). There may even have been a French game called poque which was very similar. It appears that several countries had card games involving bluffing around the same time period and any of them could have been the original source but the American gamblers slipped the word into mainstream English usage and usually take credit on this one. Whist, another very popular card game (this time taught to me by a nun in the 1980s!) also involves bluffing and it dates back to the 1660s, so poker isn’t the first by any means.

The related term is, of course, poker face. Early examples of its use to describe somebody controlling their facial expressions to improve their chances in the game date back to the 1870s. This is something I’ve yet to achieve so it’s probably best that I stick to playing with plastic chips rather than cash.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@wordfoolery)

p.s. I’m delighted to announce that starting this Wednesday (14th Oct) I’ll be joining SinĂ©ad Brassil on LMFM radio once a month to chat about the history of unusual words and phrases on Wordfoolery Wednesdays. If you live in the Louth Meath area you can tune in live on 95.8fm, listen live via the internet, or listen to the podcast afterwards (I’ll share the link on the blog and on my social media when it’s available).

Snoofing my way though Twixtmas

No snow this year for Christmas - this snowlady is from 2013

No snow this year for Christmas – this snowlady is from 2013


This week’s word is a suggestion from my sister who spotted it, appropriately enough, on a train. Snoofing is a verb meaning to feign a dormant state in order to avoid interaction with other passengers on public transport, especially if that means relinquishing your seat to someone in need.

Snoofing is a recently invented word whose origin appears to be from spoofing (pretending) and snooze. It doesn’t appear in any of the mainstream dictionaries but as a former train commuter (who only rarely had a seat during her pregnancies) I can assure readers that snoofing is a real and deserves a verb, if only so we can shame those who engage in it.

Spoof (a hoax, trick or deception) has a longer history. It comes from spoof in 1884, a card game involving trickery, bluffing, and nonsense invented by British comedian and music hall entertainer Arthur Roberts (1852-1933). The idea of a spoof as being a skit or parody of a play or movie entered English around 1914. Arthur started his career busking in London’ Covent Garden and once caused a supper room to lose its license due to performing one of his more saucy songs there.

There is also a coin game called spoof and a world championship. Details and rules of play are here.

I haven’t been able to find the rules of spoof as invented by Arthur Roberts because it would be a fun game to play during twixtmas – the days between St. Stephen’s Day and New Year’s Eve. Instead I shall have to deploy my snoofing techniques to avoid washing the dishes.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,