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Poker adds to language

Poker has a vast jargon of its own and some of these terms enter mainstream English every year.  Words like bluff and poker face, add a lot of color to everyday English.  Poker onlinedeveloped language of its own simply because no one has a poker face online!

The Language of Poker is Becoming the Language of Every Man

One clear sign that an event or an activity has penetrated popular culture is when terms from that event or activity suddenly seem to be in widespread use in everyday language.   In the United States, there are many baseball terms that have been common in everyday English.  An odd idea might “come out of left field”.  When Barack Obama chose Joe Biden as his Vice-President in 2008, Bill Clinton said that Obama had “hit a home run”.   Conversely, when a person fails in any attempt we might day that he “struck out”.

Politics Drives Language

In the “Trump era”, some terms become popular.   The blackjack term “double down” now can mean to continue to hold a controversial position especially in the face of evidence that seems to contradict the original position.  The poker term “all in” may also become popular in a similar context but it has not yet done so.

So, we thought it might be interesting and even informative to explore terms that originated in poker and have entered everyday speech.  One way to learn which words are getting mainstream traction is to look at online poker forums and online political and social media forums.

The overlap of terms is striking. 

Bluff

This may be the most common poker term in common, everyday use.  We use it in informal speech regarding any type of negotiation.  “He’s bluffing” describes a negotiation tactic that appears to be far from the real, anticipated conclusion of the deal.

If we are sure that someone is bluffing we can “call his bluff”.

Deal

Speaking about a business deal, the etymology of this term is quite fascinating.  It comes from an Old English term which meant either to distribute or to participate.  Both of these understandings are present in poker, so we might say that Old English gave us the term “deal” as in to distribute the cards.

Poker has given back the term “it’s your deal” which in poker terms simply refers to the rotating dealer position and in business terms refers to a big financial or business project in which one member of a corporation may be assigned to lead the negotiations and implementation of the deal.

It is also remarkable that the term deal evolved into the term “tell”.  It seems that in the business world, dealing, bluffing, and revealing one’s real position through “tells” is far older than we might have thought.

Pass the Buck

The buck was the original poker term for the deal as it rotated around the table.  In the old American West, poker players were notoriously suspicious of each other as they should have been.  The button was a knife with a handle made from a buck’s horn.   

The knife moved around the table to represent the dealer and if a player decided not to deal the cards, he “passed the buck”.

The term buck is also slang for dollars and for the wild gyrations horses make in rodeos.  Many people think that to pass the buck refers to money.  In fact, it refers to either shirking one’s responsibility or, more commonly, trying to pass the blame for a failure onto someone else.

A “bucking bronco” is an untamed horse.

Poker Face

This is a very common English term.  It has spawned its own subset of terms.  For example, pulp fiction writers use the cliché “stony face or stony visage” to describe any of their characters from a criminal to a detective.

In less demonstrative speech we talk about a person who “shows no emotion”.

Four Flusher

This term derives from the modern understanding of passing the buck.  A person who successfully passes the buck in the sense of passing the blame for a failure onto someone else may develop a reputation as a “four flusher”.   In modern terms, this is a very negative term.  It sets the four flusher apart from his or her colleagues as someone not to be trusted.  In poker, it originally meant a player who stayed in pots too long hoping to turn four to a flush into a winning flush.

When the Chips are Down

A four flusher cannot be trusted in general but especially not when the chips are down.  This refers to tense moments in any activity from the end of a negotiation before the close, a critical moment in a sports match, or even when there is a serious complication in a surgery.

Everyone experiences moments when the chips are down.  Some people react forcefully and some people fold under the pressure.

Fold

This is the moment a player realizes either that his hand is the weaker hand or he is simply unwilling to find out if the opponent is bluffing.  Poker players fold before the flop at least 70% of the time.  So, folding is not a shameful tactic; in fact, it is the best tactic most of the time.

Folding can lead to derision when a player stays in a hand too long only to fold in the face of a large bet.  In business negotiations, one side might fold when the other side “ups the ante”.

Up the Ante

This is an excellent example of how words and terms enter common use even in somewhat different form than the original.  In poker, we might up the ante in a friendly neighborhood game from five cents to a dime.  In business terms, it means to add some demand in negotiations.

A businessperson might up the ante only months after the negotiations started. 

Stack the Deck

This is one of the most under-handed things poker players can do.  In everyday use, it mostly refers to inter-personal or political matters in which one side has contrived to set the rules or to change the rules so as to favor their side in a dramatic fashion.

One of the reasons American politics have become so contentious is because everyone is accusing everyone else of stacking the deck against them.

Blue Chip

This ubiquitous term comes from the blue chips at the poker table which represented the highest denomination.  Today, a blue chip stock is stock in a top level company, a blue chip athlete is one at or near the top of his or her sport, and a blue chip idea is one that has or may soon be accepted worldwide.

Poker is a blue chip game not only in the challenges it represents but also in the many words and terms it gives to the language.