Simanaitis Says

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THIS WEBSITE’S RECENT account on Trump doubling down got me to thinking about other playing card-related terms that have entered our language as metaphors or similes. Here’s a sampling, in no particular order.

Ante Up. According to Merriam-Webster, “To ante up” means to build a poker stake before the cards are dealt. Its first known use was in 1831. Ante as a noun preceded this by ten years. It’s likely borrowed from the Latin ante, “before, preceding.”

Partridge cites “to ante up” with a more general meaning of “To hand over, surrender (a thing).”

Penny-Ante. M-W defines penny-ante as “small-time, two-bit,” “poker played for very low stakes.” Its usage dates from the middle 1800s.

More precise accounting would place penny-ante as less impressive than two-bit, given that a bit is 12 1/2¢.

A Few Cards Short of a Full Deck. This is a variation on the “few…full” metaphor cited by Partridge as a “few pence short in the shilling.” It means “half-witted, (slightly) mad.” My favorite related term is “nice apartment, nobody home.”

M-W cites only its opposite: “To play with a full deck” is defined as “to be rational or sane.”

Stack the Deck. Partridge notes that this dishonest shuffling of a deck of cards has the broader meaning of “to take unfair advantage.” He dates it c. 1905.

Raw Deal. M-W defines this as “an instance of unfair treatment,” with its first known use in 1911. Not that people weren’t getting or giving raw deals before that….

Suit. The word “suit” has many modern uses, including a somewhat pejorative description of anyone wearing coat-and-trouser attire of that name. The card-playing terms “long suit,” “short suit,” and “following suit” have evolved into general meanings of “best or strongest,” “worst or weakest,” and “adhering to practice,” respectively.

French, Latin, or Germanic Suit. While researching these tidbits, I came to learn that we Americans play cards using the French Deck, albeit with slightly different names. Our diamonds are what they call tiles; our clubs are their clovers, and our spades are their pikes. We agree about hearts.

Latin and Germanic decks have different symbols, and not the full count of 52. (Please, no jokes here about “playing short of a full deck.”)

According to Wikipedia, “Latin decks usually drop the higher-valued pip cards, while Germanic decks drop the lower-valued ones.” Pips, by the way, are those symbols identifying a card’s suit and rank.

Double Down. Originally a term in the game of blackjack, doubling down is the option of doubling an initial bet in exchange for one and only one extra card. According to Merriam-Webster, it has come to mean “to become more tenacious, zealous, or resolute in a position or undertaking.”

Its first known use in blackjack was in 1949. Examples of the second are abundantly Trumpian.

Doubling down: Trump and a crowd of perhaps 3700 mostly unmasked supporters (in seats zip-tied together). Image from

Trump. In Bridge, a designated trump card wins over any card not of its suit, regardless of value.

Merriam-Webster lists two other definitions: “a decisive overriding factor or final resource—called a trump card.” and “a dependable and exemplary person.”

I’m not sure how this last definition will fare, what with the current administration being a few cards short of a full deck, making raw deals, and using stacked decks. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020


  1. fred vainas
    July 8, 2020

    As a left-leaning person, I hate to play Whist now. I and all my friends keep wanting to play “no trump”.

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