Tag Archives: poker

The Obscure Origins of the Game of Poker

Hello,

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).