It may not seem obvious to most people, but poker terms have become a significant part of everyday speech. Ever since the first five-card poker game (played in the U.S., sometime around 1834), poker has been an inseparable part of the American experience. Today, many people use much of the game's terminology colloquially.
Lady Gaga's hit song "Poker Face." The sitcoms "Full House" and "King of Queens." MSNBC's news program "All In." Clearly, these terms have invaded pop culture. To understand the game's significance, we examined card terminology in movies, television, and literary fiction. Read on to learn the pervasiveness of poker (plus other card games) and how it plays into our common psyche.
Cards in the Movies
In our analysis of 1,223 movie scripts, 183 contained mentions of our specific card terms. We found the phrase "poker face" – meaning a strong ability to convincingly lie or deceive – was used the most of any card term, with 82 mentions. This includes the 45 times it appears in the 1999 prison comedy "Life," which includes a character named Pokerface. The film, featuring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, is rife with card terminology.
"Follow suit" is next with 72 mentions, followed by "full house" (31 mentions), and "ace of spades" (24 mentions). On the other hand, "up the ante" features just two mentions; "lost in the shuffle" (four mentions) and "high stakes" (eight mentions) are lost in the shuffle as well.
You're also more likely to hear poker terms in crime movies and dramas. For example, "wild card" appeared seven times in the movie "Insomnia." Comedies are more likely to use terms from social games such as Bridge and Hearts.
Cards on TV
While one might assume that a show named "Full House" would be full of card references, our researchers found only four mentions of card terminology throughout the series. (This includes the one episode that actually featured a poker game.)
Still, our examination of over 70,000 television scripts revealed 562 total mentions of "full house." "Strong suit" came in second, with 367 mentions. "Wild card" was next in the deck, with 314 mentions, followed by "poker face" (238 mentions). "Lost in the shuffle," "go all in," and "follow suit" were mentioned less than 100 times each.
Counting Television Show Card Mentions
Korean War–based series "M.A.S.H." used the most card references among scripted television shows. Soldiers of this period were regularly given card decks in their gear allocation, and it was common for them to play cards between engagements. "M.A.S.H." is an example of how a television series' dialogue or setting can encourage the use of card references.
Crime procedurals also make up five of the top 11 shows that use card terms. Dramas are the second-largest group, with four shows. "Full house" was the most common term used among dramas, while "wild card" was preferred among comedies.
"Poker face" is commonly mentioned due to the titular song by Lady Gaga; the song was covered on an episode of "Glee," contributing to the series' 10 total mentions.
A significant number of televised card terms, however, happen on unscripted television. For example, the game show "The Price is Right" regularly features card-based pricing ploys, and game shows such as "The Joker's Wild," "21," and "Card Sharks" utilize card game motifs as well.
The MSNBC news analysis program "All In" uses a poker term title. The sports broadcast regularly employs card metaphors to describe plays too.
Finally, networks regularly air poker tournaments; naturally, these broadcasts only increase the volume of TV card speak.
Cards in Literature
It should be noted that card references tend to appear in movies because they were previously featured in the literature that inspired them. During certain time periods, particular phrases would be used more than others. For example, "cards on the table" hit the height of its popularity in the 1930s and into the early 1960s. This was a time where the nation was in crisis – first with the Great Depression, and then World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War escalation that ultimately gave way to the Vietnam War. Perhaps it was a time to speak more plainly and avoid bluffs.
Other phrases, such as "House of Cards" – which is also the name of a popular Netflix show and the book series that came before it – "wild card," "royal flush," and "in spades" have recently seen popularity spikes after usage lulls. These phrases all see their popularity wane in the 1920s and 1930s following spikes at the turn of the century. This dip roughly corresponds with the Great Depression and the change in public attitudes that came with this period of strife. These phrases came back into use in the 1960s -- roughly the same time that novels like "The Godfather" and "The Cincinnati Kid" became popular.
In our analysis of the use of card terms in the media, we found:
- Certain terms are best used in particular situations. Phrases like "cards on the table," "strong suit," and "up the ante" tend to convey a more serious meaning than "full house," "wild card," and "poker face."
- The more widespread and popular the initial use of a phrase, the more likely it will be used again. This can be seen with Lady Gaga's "Poker Face"; after the release of the song, the term "poker face" once again became a common metaphor.
- Most card terms are used without any recognition of their roots; rather, they are simply commonly accepted and widely used phrases.
- While many of the more common phrases are poker-based, not all are. However, most of the phrases that recently ballooned in popularity are poker terms.
The English language is dynamic. The way we speak reflects the times we live in and the things that matter to us. So is it any surprise that card terminology is wildly conversational?
We searched card terminology mentions within movies using a database of 1,223 individual scripts, spanning films from the 1920s to 2015. Our television database included a search of 70,310 episode scripts from 2,438 different television series. Mentions in literature data were obtained using Google Ngram Viewer. This NGram tool was set to find case-insensitive instances of our card terms within literary fiction written in English and published within the United States.
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