Casino gaming is one of the most ubiquitous forms of entertainment worldwide, one that instantly conjures up all manner of associations.
When one thinks of the casino, the first things that come to mind might be sleek evening dresses paired with shimmering jewelry, sumptuous stacks of cash, tight-lipped blackjack dealers, or the bright neon lights that seem to never stop shining. For others, it might be the rich linguistic traditions of casino culture.
While casino gaming might be a massive, multi-billion-dollar modern enterprise, the language that structures the experience of gambling has remained remarkably stable over the past century. Much like other forms of entertainment with a long history such as golf, the language of the casino might seem bizarre if you are new to it. If you’re wondering where the strange casino lexicon came from in the first place, read our guide to the secret history of casino lingo.
The defining feature of the casino experience is, of course, the games. We all know about poker, blackjack, roulette, slots, and the like, but how many people know where the odd names for these classic games actually originated? It turns out, that each one has a quirky history of its own.
Poker, one of the most famous card games of all time, is so-called because the name resembles the German word “pochen“, which means “to bluff” accordingly to the Encyclopedia Brittanica.
Meanwhile, the word “roulette” is derived from an old-school French word for “small wheel”, which makes sense when you considered that this classic game originated in the aristocratic gaming parlors of 18th century Paris, a city that has always been big on fun.
And what about the slot machines, perhaps the most ubiquitous game in any casino? Some of you might have heard of the popular slang name for slots – “one-armed bandit”, which most people could probably figure out the origin of. However, why are slot machines called “slots” in the first place?
Well, during the late 19th century when the game was first invented, the word “slot” was widely used to describe a stab wound at the base of the throat. This was a common injury incurred in the violent gold rush towns where slots first got started. Some clever person decided that the wound resembles the coin hole in the machines, and the name “slots” stuck from there. Pretty gruesome stuff.
It’s not just the games that have a strange and surprising etymology. In order to play any casino game today, either online or in a land-based casino, you must have a working knowledge of the lingo that governs your gameplay.
In fact, major tour operators in Las Vegas such as Canyon Tours even provide detailed translation guides to their customers as strongly recommended reading before arrival, since some will struggle to play without this knowledge.
A fascinating case study here is blackjack, also known as 21 in some quarters. What makes blackjack interesting is that the fascinating vocabulary has continued to thrive in the online space, where players can play live blackjack via their smartphones.
A look at the Betway blackjack homepage reveals a comprehensive guide to the lingo that players need to know, such as “hard” (a hand with no ace) “hit” (to draw another card), “stand” (keep your hand), and “push” (when you and the dealer both have 21 cards). The etymology of these words is actually up for debate but is believed to have originated in the US, where blackjack has always been popular.
Did you know…?
Look behind the origin of almost any casino word, and colorful history will be revealed. For example, even the basic word “bet” tells a riveting story. According to the experts at Etymology Dictionary, the word “bet” comes from criminal underworld parlance of the 1600s, meaning “pledge as a forfeit to another who makes a similar pledge in return”. The term is believed to have originally been used in confrontational contexts, where criminals would compel their rivals to “bet your life”.
While some terms are a bit tamer in their origins, they tell an interesting story nonetheless. For example, the word “croupier”, which describes a person who runs a gaming table, comes from a 17th-century French word that describes a person who rides behind another “on the rump of a horse”.
The lingo of casinos, much like the lingo of other forms of entertainment, reveals much about the history of the practice and the people who indulge in it. Maybe you can share these nuggets of information with your blackjack dealer the next time you are at the table.