[Ads-l] thoughts on "stacking"/"packing"/"stocking" cards

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Sat Aug 22 17:38:09 UTC 2015

My Wall Street Journal column this week is on the political metaphor
of the "stacked deck," as when "the deck is stacked against" some
person or group of people lacking power.


(You can get around the paywall by Googling the headline: "The Stacked
Deck From Gambling to Politics.")

Here's the OED2 entry for the relevant sense of "stack" (v.1):

a. To shuffle or arrange (playing-cards) dishonestly. In fig. phr. _to
stack the cards (etc.) against_ : to reduce (a person or thing's)
chance of success. Cf. _pack_ v.2 3, _stock_ v.1 23b   orig. U.S.
1825   in M. Bayard Smith Forty Yrs. Washington Soc. (1906) 186   John
Randolph observed after counting the ballots, 'It was impossible to
win the game, gentlemen, the cards were stacked.'
1896   J. F. B. Lillard Poker Stories 54   The stranger got skinned
right and left. The cards were stacked and marked on the back, so that
he didn't have any chance at all to win.

It's intriguing, of course, that the earliest cite given is already a
figurative usage. But in researching this, I began to wonder if John
Randolph's 1825 quote (about the "corrupt bargain" between John Quincy
Adams and Henry Clay against the Jacksonians) was inaccurately
transcribed when it was published in the 1906 book:

The First Forty Years of Washington Society: Portrayed by the Family
Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard) from the
Collection of Her Grandson, J. Henley Smith
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906, p. 185-6
[February 1825:] "Well it comes to the same thing," said Mr. Lowry,
"it was Clay after all, for Scott was a mere emissary of his, and had
previously by his arts secured the votes of this one too. Scott was
irresolute, until Clay got hold of him, he had him with him until late
last night. And altho his inclination led him to vote for us, Clay had
power to persuade him to vote for Adams. 'Ah,' as John Randolph
observed after counting the ballots, 'it was impossible to win the
game, gentlemen, the cards were stacked.'"
"And that," said Mr. Cobb, nodding his head, "is fact and the people
have been tricked out of the man of their choice."

A reference to Randolph's quote published in 1837 gives it as "the
cards were *packed*" -- using a much older term for the same devious
practice of pre-arranging a deck of cards (OED3 has cites for this
sense back to 1575):

Southern Literary Messenger (Richmond, VA), May 1837, p. 276
"Sketches of Private Life and Character of William H. Crawford"
Among other incidents, one of the gentlemen mentioned that Mr.
Randolph, who counted the ballots, after announcing the result,
exclaimed, "It was impossible to win the game, gentlemen-- the cards
were packed." "And that," said Mr. Cobb, "is the fact. The people have
been tricked out of the man of their choice."

Historians seem split on whether Randolph said "stacked" or "packed."
But if there is no reference to him saying "packed" before the 1906
publication of Margaret Bayard Smith's correspondence, then I think
it's quite plausible that "packed" was the historically accurate word,
which got changed in 1906 to "stacked" due to an error (or intentional
improvement?) in the transcribing and editing. Determining the truth
may require a trip to the Library of Congress, where the Margaret
Bayard Smith Papers are held:


I haven't thoroughly scoured the databases, but the earliest *literal*
use of "stack" in the relevant sense that I've come across is actually
from a UK source, in an 1847 edition of The Examiner, a weekly
newspaper edited by Leigh Hunt:

The Examiner, Dec. 18, 1847, Vol. 2081, p. 811, col. 2
Courts of Law. Central Criminal Court. -- Tuesday.
Cheating at Cards.-- C. Brewer, -- Rolphs, and A.W. Barr, were
indicted (the two former surrendering in court) for having conspired
to cheat and defraud a gentleman named Kerie of a large sum of money
by false play at cards.
[William Lewis:] "The landlord supplied us with the first pack of
cards; but while, by a preconcerted plan, Barr and Carter drew off
Kerie's attention, I substituted for them a "stacked" pack, which was
arranged so as to give Kerie a good hand, upon which he would bet, but
I dealt myself a card, by holding which till the last Kerie could not
win... I dealt him the ace, king, queen, and jack, the ten and the
nine of trumps, and good cards of other suits, but I kept back a king,
by which I was safe to win... We always played whist. We always knew
what cards Mr. Kerie held, and could let him win or lose at pleasure.
I stacked the cards."

William Lewis, who gave up his confederates, testified that he had
worked in New York as a house decorator from 1842 to 1844, so it's
possible he picked up an American usage and brought it home to the UK.

Besides the questionable Randolph quote, the earliest political usage
of "stacking (cards)" I've seen so far is from a complaint about
ballot-box stuffing by Radical Republicans in the 1868 GOP caucuses:

Columbian Register (New Haven, CT), March 21, 1868, p. 2, col. 1
"The New Hampshire Fraud"
The Radicals stacked the cards in New Hampshire, and the proof of it
lies in their own fraudulent returns.

"Stack" is also very close to "stock" -- like "pack," "stock" predates
"stack" in card-playing use, and it likewise got extended figuratively
to politics. According to the Congressional Globe, James W. Flanagan,
a pro-Grant Republican senator from Texas, referred to a "stocked
deck" when talking about a call for adjournment by the anti-Grant
Liberal Republicans:

Congressional Globe, June 1, 1872, Volume 5, p. 4147, co.. 2
I for one will sit here for the next month, nay, I will go deeply into
July, before they shall thus go off with their stocked deck, if I may
say so, without cutting in and breaking their lead.

But when the quote appeared in Dialect Notes in 1939, "stocked" got
changed to "stacked":

Dialect Notes, Vol. 6, 1939
1872 I for one will sit here for the next month, ... before [the
Liberal Republicans] shall thus go off with their stacked deck, if I
may say so without cutting in and breaking their lead. -- Mr. J.W.
Flanagan of Tex., U.S. Senate, June 1, C.G. p. 4147/2.

Flanagan's quote also appears with "stacked" in Michael Oriard's
_Sporting with the Gods: The Rhetoric of Play and Game in American
Literature_ (borrowing directly from Dialect Notes):


Moral of the story: if you see an early reference to "stacking" cards,
it's best to double-check that it wasn't actually "packing" or


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

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