old wives tells (and others)

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Mon Feb 17 17:50:24 UTC 2014

On Mon, Feb 17, 2014 at 12:18 PM, Ben Zimmer wrote:
> On Mon, Feb 17, 2014 at 12:05 PM, Laurence Horn wrote:
>> Unless it refers to an indication (eye- or lip-twitch, posture change, quality of speech,
>> etc.) on the part of a poker player that inadvertently reveals (= "telegraphs") the
>> strength or weakness of his or her hand--perhaps old wives (or women) could have
>> different tells from younger ones, or from men.
>> Curiously, this "tell", n., which is common enough at least in poker lingo to have its
>> own (albeit brief) Wikipedia page, has no lemma in either the OED or AHD5. [...]
> Not in OED, because the "tell" entry hasn't been revised in over a
> century. But Oxford Dictionaries (in both US and UK flavors) has it:
> "(especially in poker) an unconscious action that is thought to betray
> an attempted deception."
> http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/american_english/tell
> http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/tell

Looks like the usage is at least 60 years old. In April 1954,
Collier's Magazine ran a three-part series on "Nick the Greek,
Fabulous King of the Gamblers," by Richard Donovan and Hank Greenspun.
Collier's is in snippet view on Google Books, but UNZ.org has the page

Part 1 (4/2/54) here, no "tells":
Part 2 (4/16/54), "I Play for the Risk, Not the Money," p. 86
"I watch what my opponents do with their cards and try to read emotion
in their faces or actions. With veteran players, of course, face
reading is useless. Good poker players have a lot of educated ham in
them: they will show nervousness when holding three aces, calm when
holding a handful of rags. If you get a tell on this routine, they
switch it."
Part 3 (4/30/54), "Of Dice and Men," p. 68
"I never saw poker players harder to get a tell on," Nick the Greek
recalls. "Most of the prognosticators' faces were hidden behind
wildernesses of facial hair; the faces of the Indians, while hairless,
were as of stone."

Interesting that it first appears in the form "get a tell on
(someone/something)" -- very similar to "get a read on."


Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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