It’s that time of year again — time to select a random word and then write a column about it. This year, my finger landed on gamble.
Gamble can be either a verb or a noun, although its original use was as a verb.
As a verb, gamble means: 1. to bet money on the outcome of a game, contest, or other event; 2. to play a game of chance; 3. to take a risk; 4. to wager.
As a noun, a gamble is a bet; an act or undertaking of uncertain outcome; a risk. A gambler is one who gambles; that is, someone who makes a habit of playing for money.
These various meanings came into English at different times. To gamble away (to lose) arrived in 1634. To gamble, in the sense of “to bet,” was here by 1775. To take a gamble on (to speculate) was first noted in 1884.
Other terms arose. One interesting phrase is tin-horn gambler which originated during the 1897 Gold Rush. Tin-horn gambler was the condescending label applied to someone who couldn’t afford the costly game of “faro ,” and so indulged in “chuck-a-luck,” a poor man’s game.
Chuck-a-luck was played with three dice rather than with cards. Those running the game got bored shaking a dice cup for hours on end and devised a churn-like gizmo that sounded something like a horn. Soon, this gadget was known as a “tin-horn,” and, very quickly, people who played chuck-a-luck were called tin-horn gamblers.
This term didn’t fade away when the Gold Rush ended. Tin-horn is used today for anyone who looks cheap and flashy.
Established only in 1968, the Yukon town of Faro was named for the first mine opened there (lead-zinc). The mine, in turn, was named for the game.
Even those who dislike country music, recognize Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler when they hear, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em/Know when to walk away and know when to run./You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table./There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”
I heard Kenny Rogers in concert when I lived in Edmonton. He told the audience he can never mount a show without singing both The Gambler and You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille. Fans demand both songs at every performance.
The word gamble probably arose from an earlier Middle English word gamel, which comes from the Old English gamien (to sport, play). The ultimate origin is in the Common German gam (to enjoy).
Game shares this etymological history. In fact, gambling is often called gaming. We no longer hear of gambling dens or gaming houses, though, because these days, we have respectable and legal “casinos.”
Playwright, Tom Stoppard, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967), provides us with a good line to end this discussion: “Life is a gamble at terrible odds — if it was a bet, you wouldn’t take it.”