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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: The Games People Played

Words that have their origins in the games of earlier generations are probably more common than most of us realize. Here we examine just a few, explaining how we have adapted the terms "case," "pass the buck," "kibitz," and more. It will certainly change some perspectives when you realize game-playing phrase genetics.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 1633 (approx.)
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One of the most popular games of the 21st Century is poker; if not playing the game, enthusiasts can be found watching the tournaments on television. There are versions for computers and hand-held devices so people can even play without an opponent. It stands to reason that, as they are for us, games were important to our ancestors. Records of historical events such as the California Gold Rush and the American Civil War include accounts of card games, as well as other games of chance, used to pass the time and provide welcome diversions. While these common leisure time activities were popular in the mid-19th Century, some of the terms that originated with the games have been adapted to other arenas over the years. Let us look at some of the terms we use in non-gaming activities but that can be traced back to popular amusements of former eras.

If you have ever watched television or movie westerns, you surely will have noticed the cowboys taking refuge in the town saloons where they engaged in their favorite pastime: poker. Real life cowboys similarly engaged in this activity, and in order to keep track of whose turn it was to deal, a marker, or "buck," was placed in front of the dealer of each round, or hand. The players would be likely to use a knife (probably with a "buckhorn" handle) for this purpose (Funk, Hog on Ice, pp. 117-118). This would be passed to the next person in line to deal after the current hand had been dealt. On occasion, a player might elect to shirk his dealing responsibility and he/she would "pass the buck" to the next in line. This lack of taking responsibility led, in later years, to President Harry Truman's sign on his desk that declared, "The buck stops here," meaning that he would take responsibility even when others chose to pass (Mordock & Korach, p. 153). Today we continue to use the term "passing the buck" when discussing a person who has managed to avoid performing a particular task, allowing someone else to fill in for him or her. As a side note, there are those who believe the name of the game "poker" is derived from the German pochspiel, from the term "ich poche" (meaning "I pass"). But another possibility is the Yiddish word pochger (referring to the concealing of winnings and losses, reminiscent of the "poker face" utilized by many players in an effort to keep secret their status in the game) (Holt, p. 200).

On this same subject of bluffing, we find the origin of the term "four-flusher." Today we use the term to refer to someone who is faking, giving us a hint to its genesis. In an effort to bluff his/her opponent(s), a stud poker player will show four cards of the same suit (a flush is five cards of the same suit), appearing to have a fifth card to make the flush when, in fact, the hidden card is of a different suit. These fake flushes became known as "four-flushes" and the one who bluffs in this manner is, of course, a "four-flusher" (Mordock & Korach, pp. 152-1253).

In gambling establishments, gaming tables have holes or slots in them into which is placed the house's portion of each "pot." When a player remarks that he/she is "in the hole," meaning in debt because of his/her losses, it is this hole to which he/she is referring (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, p. 97). These days we use the term "in the hole" to refer to any loss, even those far removed from gambling.

In some of those same gaming locales, we will find the roulette wheel, a game of chance that the unscrupulous operator might rig with a control beneath the table, permitting the confidence man to stop the spinning wheel at will, winning the bets. But, when the operator wanted to convince the players that the wheel was not rigged, he/she would declare, "All above board!" indicating that there was no hidden treadle (Garrison, What's in a Word?, p. 24). Over time, the practice of keeping one's hands "above board" became the preferred method for those in the game to be assured there was no manipulation of the odds, occurring out of sight (Mordock & Korach, p. 152). Today we continue to use the phrase "aboveboard" to refer to a person or situation that is honest and/or fair.

Not all gambling establishments frequented by our ancestors were well lit, and when the proprietor was watching his overhead, the players were expected to pay for the use of the candles needed to illuminate the game. For some, it was not worth the cost, and they would state that "the game is not worth the candle" (Mordock & Korach, p. 154). However, many card games would take place in less than ideal situations where there was poor lighting, such as on the journey west. In these cases, the candles were held by bystanders since the flat playing surface was often limited. The person appointed to this task was often the one who lost in a previous game (candle-holding was anything but prestigious). But if one whose position in the group was so low it was not even of the candle-holding caliber, he might have been rated as "not able to hold a candle" (Garrison, Why You Say It, p. 114). Today, with all the electric bulbs keeping us in a flood of light, we continue to use the phrase and some will compare one person to another, declaring that "X cannot hold a candle to Y."

Of course, giving this low-life a candle to hold would be preferable to having him watching the game in the role of "kibitzer." The kibitz is a German bird that is unable to sing; instead, it has a shrill cry that frequently scares away game that hunters are hoping will provide the evening's dinner. This behavior, of course, is most undesirable and the hunters would prefer there be no such birds in their presence. This is similar to the desires of the gamblers playing their evening poker: the "kibitzer" chatters on incessantly, looking at everyone's cards and making inane comments that distract the players (Garrison, Why You Say It, p. 161). And, of course, he cannot hold a candle to the serious card sharks.

While our ancestors did not see many elaborate gaming parlors in smaller communities, large cities like San Francisco or Sacramento had establishments that included the old game of faro. It was very popular in the early days of California and Nevada and included a frame or "case" in which the cards were placed after being played. The bigger games necessitated a "case keeper" who would arrange the "dead" cards for the players to examine or "case" in order to most effectively utilize the cards they held. This behavior soon became a term for any close examination of something (Garrison, What's in a Word?, p. 171), behavior that genealogists are frequently found doing: we "case" all the sources we can find in an effort to determine which ancestors are ours!

Another staple of the better saloons was the pool table, and the games played on it have provided us with phrases that are used far from the gambling parlors in which they are found: "behind the eight ball" and "get a bad/good break" both have their origins in pocket billiards. We might say that we find ourselves behind the eight ball (in an uncomfortable position) when we discover we need at least another day of record searching when visiting the Family History Library in Salt Lake. When we find a record that has eluded us for years, we might declare we have had a good break in our research. In the game of pool, the balls are arranged in a triangular formation; if the first shot (the "break") results in balls being in an ideal position for one's opponent to sink them easily, it is considered a "bad break" (the opposite, of course, being a "good break"). In the variation of the game where balls are to be pocketed in numerical order (each ball has a number on it), the eight ball is omitted from the sequence and is to be pocketed last. However, if a player accidentally sinks the eight ball out of order, he/she is penalized. Having the cue-ball positioned "behind the eight ball," then, becomes uncomfortable for a player as it prevents him/her from making an easy shot at one of the other balls (Mordock & Korach, pp. 158-159).

As we continue to learn about our ancestors and their lives, we fervently hope that we never discover them to be four-flushers, in-the-hole over any financial issues, behind the eight ball, given (or giving) a bad break, or passing the buck. But, if we do, we know it is important that we be aboveboard about the lives of those who came before us. When we kibitz about our findings, we excitedly discuss that which we have cased, and sometimes declare that all our genealogical expenditures have put us in the hole (hopefully only temporarily). But most of us will proudly declare that our research has led to a major finding: no one can hold a candle to our ancestors!


Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Garrison, Webb B. Why You Say It: The Fascinating Stories Behind Over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Funk, Charles Earle. Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1948.

Funk, Charles Earle. Heavens to Betsy & Other Curious Sayings. New York: Harper & Row, 1955.

Holt, Alfred. Phrases and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.

Mordock, John, & Korach, Myron. Common Phrases and Where They Came From. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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