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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: poker

ask (n.)

(2010’s | athletese? | “request,” “appeal”)

I still don’t know for sure, but it looks to me like “ask” first grew as a noun in Australia, as far back as the eighties, mainly in sports lingo. It may have happened earlier, it may have happened somewhere else, but by 1990 it was not hard to find the nominal “ask” in the antipodal press, often in the phrase “big ask” (which meant simply “a lot to ask”). In the U.S, it didn’t occur often before 2000, and it seems to have leached into the language over the next ten years through that eternal pursuit, fundraising. Political candidates, hospital executives, church ladies all must eventually “make the ask” of donors (put the bite on, we used to say irreverently). To this day, it turns up most in financial contexts; an ask generally involves money and is directed to an individual, though it could also be made of a charitable institution.

“Ask” is still used far more often as a verb, and that should remain true for a long time. But the noun is out there now, getting a bit more normal-sounding every year. It’s not very interesting semantically, simply filling space that once belonged to “request” or “appeal.” The noun tags along behind the wealth of phrases involving the verb, e.g., “a lot to ask,” “not too much to ask,” “asking price” (well, that’s a participle), or more picturesque entries like “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”

So “the ask” really doesn’t add much to the language except another thorn in the side of traditionalists. That and opportunities for wordplay. Imagine a situation in which a fundraiser from one organization calls a donor shortly after one from another organization has gotten a sizable commitment. Wouldn’t that be a “tough ask to follow”? Top fundraiser for the year? The Askmaster! Medical research? “The Ask of the Red Death” (why not “The Ask of Amontillado”? ask the Poe-lovers). And it need not be reserved for filthy lucre. Students of antiquity may dwell quietly on the possibilities of Cleopatra’s ask, or Balaam’s. Then there’s “ask-backwards,” but that’s pushing things too far, trying to make an adjective out of it. Never fear, we’ll get there some day. Will “ask” beget “asky” (not to be confused with “ASCII”) — possible meanings: demanding, importunate, chancy — as “judge” has begotten “judgy”?

tell (n.)

(2010’s | athletese (poker) | “giveaway,” “telltale sign”)

This noun we owe to card players by general agreement. The OED cites a first instance from 1974, the second from 1998, both from commentary on poker. When the noun started to turn up shortly before 2010, writers often suggested that it was a poker term. It certainly seems plausible when you consider that poker players make their living by interpreting revealing behavior from their tablemates. A man named Mark Bouton published a book called “How to Spot Lies like the FBI” in 2010 in which the expression appeared often. The fact that a tell betrays that which one would rather hide causes it to be used to imply unsavory or deceptive behavior: lying, bluffing. Or a revelation of shame or vulnerability, as the gun shop owner who looks for “tells” suggesting that a buyer wants a gun in order to commit suicide. You can use another’s tell to help or harm them, but harm is more likely.

Apparently it’s no more than an abbreviation of “tell-tale sign.” I suppose it has the appeal of all shortenings, which is a higher meaning-to-syllable ratio. Like “ask,” “tell” portends little of semantic interest, but that doesn’t keep devotees of the latest vocabulary from embracing it. Then again, it may have a more capacious side, as in this from Gawker in 2007: “Restaurants, like poker players, have certain tells, minute signifiers that betray a whole constellation of facts.” Not one ho-hum revelation, but a peek into a universe of certainties deduced from one minor detail. Perhaps that’s a bit too Holmesian, but there is a sense in which “tell” opens up not just one surface inference but any number of supporting circumstances. A good tell reader will get more out of your tic or gesture than just the knowledge that you’re lying. (What are the words for the person issuing the tell and the person discerning it, anyway?)

I’ve done a couple of other words that have to do with unwelcome revelations: exposure, unpack. “Unpack” and “tell,” one a verb and the other a converted verb, are sort of opposite sides of the same coin, both related to getting underneath the obvious and extracting deeper significance. But in this case the unpacker can’t let on. Part of the point of noticing and correctly interpreting a tell is that the “teller” doesn’t know you’ve done it, doesn’t realize he has clued you in through an involuntary or unconscious movement. On the other hand, unpacking is normally a public process, in which the actor wants everyone to know what she’s doing. Maybe “tell” is really the opposite of “TMI,” betraying oneself with a small but highly significant hint rather than sheer garrulousness.


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play the race card

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “appeal to one’s worst instincts,” “stir up trouble”)

Apparently a Briticism, which came as rather a surprise to me, considering the expression smacks so richly of American penchants for prejudice and poker. The earliest appearances in LexisNexis began in the U.K. ca. 1986 and didn’t show up in U.S. sources until 1990, though it took root very quickly (see penchants noted above). No hits from any country in Google Books before 1985, either. I would love to have a fuller understanding of the origin of “play the race card.” Few expressions have a clear origin or single inventor, but normally one finds isolated early examples preceding a flowering, or similar expressions serving as transitional forms. (In this case, an example might be Nixon’s references to playing the China card, presumably part of an old China hand, as one source suggests.) But in this case it seems to have caught on more or less instantly, at least by linguistic standards. Some sources suggest that the O.J. Simpson trial lent it ubiquity in the U.S.

The other surprise came out of the discovery that in those early British instances, and in many early American ones, too, the race card was played by the majority, fomenting suspicion and hatred of a minority group. I’ve grown used to hearing the practice imputed to members of minorities, trying to claim special privileges based on past discrimination. But it was originally a left-wing attack phrase, used of nationalist or anti-immigrant parties in England. Jesse Helms’s 1990 campaign for Senate against Harvey Gantt (who was African-American) ran an ad accusing him of favoring racial quotas, whereupon Helms was condemned for “playing the race card.” It worked; he came from behind to win a close election. By 2008, Republicans routinely accused Obama of the tactic; actually, right-wingers are happy to claim anyone, black, white, or red all over, is playing the race card. No matter which side does it, it is more than a breach of etiquette; it is dishonorable, a matter of taking unfair advantage. (It also constitutes a form of intimidation.) Which is a little strange, because in poker (or, more likely, bridge, as Lovely Liz points out), there’s nothing suspect about playing a card; it’s part of the normal course of the game. When transposed into politics, it becomes a low-down act, but maybe that says more about politics than cards.

The expression has spawned a few imitators; one hears occasional references to the “gender card,” “religion card,” “terrorist card,” or other nonce cards — but none as common, or quite as venomous, as “race card.” One rarely acknowledges playing the race card oneself; it is an accusation. Nor does one admire deft use of the race card, even when played effectively. Like negative campaigning, push polling, and plenty of other dubious political practices, everyone deplores it but will happily engage in it if it has any chance of working. Who says bipartisanship is dead?

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all in

(2010’s | militarese? | “giving one’s all,” “bound and determined”)

“All in all.” “All-in-one.” “All in the wrist.” “All in your head.” “All in the same boat.” “All in good time.” Or you could just settle for “all in,” shorn of superfluous objects and uttered with quiet conviction. It means we won’t turn back; we won’t give in. But that’s not what it meant in my childhood. Back then “all in” meant “worn out,” “exhausted.” That definition was on its way out then, and the usage we see today represents a revival, doubtless an unnecessary one. In poker, it meant “having put all one’s chips in the pot” (which makes more sense). “All in” was a bit anomalous among the many vigorous expressions for states of lassitude. Most of them are straight predicate adjectives: “beat,” “pooped,” “spent,” “wrecked.” It reminds me a little of “done in,” but literally that means “murdered,” something much stronger. The old usage (citations date back to the nineteenth century in Lighter) is mostly gone, but I believe the term is still current in poker. (Ian Crouch gives a good account of the evolution of “all in” in the New Yorker.) In the modern sense, popularized by David Petraeus’s biography (2012), it also seems related to poker somehow, but in a more positive way — a confidence in the supremacy of your hand that causes you to bet your entire stack of chips without hesitation. But “all in” doesn’t connote arrogance or unseemly displays of power so much as steely resolve or unswerving attention to the task at hand. “All in” is what you are at the beginning of the day; it used to be what you are at the end of the day.

Theoretically it ought to be possible to be “all in” squared — bent on reaching the goal AND too tired to go on. But the effort required to maintain such commitment precludes helplessness born of weariness. Being all in implies that you have enough energy to figure out and make the next move, or enough force of will to overcome the newest obstacle. The other verb that precedes the expression is “go,” which reminds us of how closely it resembles “go all out,” a phrase much beloved of sports announcers in my youth. I don’t listen to play-by-play as much as I used to, but I have the impression we don’t hear “go all out” much any more.

“All” in itself implies a group, so “all in” should suggest effort toward a common goal, as in “we’re all in this together.” It may, but it doesn’t have to. It is possible to go all in on your own private project, but it might sound a little odd. When politicians and military people use it, there’s at least a hint of pulling together. That assumption of camaraderie is made explicit in what may prove to be yet another new meaning for the expression. Penn State University’s “All In” initiative provides an example, the motto being “A Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion.” Here the term is used very self-consciously to express the ideal of a tolerant, easy-going community. Donald Trump’s ascendance has given this sort of communitarianism a boost, and so I suspect we may see the expression used this way more and more. Keep your eyes peeled; “all in” may shed its skin yet again.

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(1990’s | businese | “on the low side,” “sneaky,” “under-“)

The point about this word was that it implies deception; it goes with a word like “underhanded,” even though it is not a synonym. Space is opening up to use the word in a more neutral way, as in this recent pronouncement: “Official NOAA Climate Prediction Center estimates peg the odds of El Niño’s return at 50 percent, but many climate scientists think that is a lowball estimate.” No accusation of hanky-panky there. But the term does retain a strong association with deliberate deception on the one hand, and with financial transactions on the other. It can be a verb or even a noun (as in, “If she offers you a hundred dollars, don’t take it. That’s a lowball.”), yet it is most often encountered in an adjective mood, modifying things like offers, bids, budget projections, or sales prices. Sometimes it is designed to cheat, sometimes merely to lower expectations; either way, it partakes of deliberately misleading the audience. Even in a sentence like ” . . . the loss of physical bookstores, buckling under the weight of Amazon’s lowball prices” (International Business Times News, December 20, 2013), the feeling remains that Amazon’s prices are somehow illegitimate or unfair, even if they are not deceptive in the usual sense.

I’m not sure why “lowball” came to mean what it means. I learned it first as a baseball term, an adjective applied to pitchers and hitters alike. In that sense, it doesn’t imply deception; there are intentionally deceptive pitches, like the changeup or the spitball, but a low fastball doesn’t have to fool the batter in order to work. A “lowball glass” is a kind of liquor vessel, a short, round, wide glass used for a single spirit on the rocks or mixed with water. The drinks themselves are sometimes referred to as “lowballs.” And it’s a type of poker, a game in which the worst hand wins. That at least contains an element of misdirection that might qualify it as an ancestor, but there’s no obvious connection. I would guess that the old word “lowdown” (meaning “reprehensible”) had an influence, possibly a decisive one; sometimes “lowball” is used as a straight synonym for “lowdown,” or at least it was.

Lighter records the first use of “lowball” — as a verb — in 1957; it appeared in the New York Times on June 16: “‘low balling’: In effect this is quoting a low price initially and then reneging” or piling on extra costs after the contract is signed. The reporter attributed the then two-word verb to auto dealers. The first citation as an adjective dates from 1970, the latest part of speech to join the bandwagon. Lighter adduces a distinct definition: “operating at a low profit margin,” applied to organizations rather than activities. That sense appears to have disappeared since the seventies.

To some degree, “lowball” has lost its negative connotation, or at least it has become possible to use it without one. Of the expressions I’ve covered, not many have gone in that direction. “Factoid” is the only example I can think of, and it’s not a very good analogy. “Thanks for sharing” is no longer automatically sarcastic, but that’s another imprecise resemblance. Terms like “massage the numbers” and “game the system” have gone the other way, losing the possibility of a positive connotation over the last few decades.

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