[Ads-l] wild card

Mon Oct 3 11:40:24 EDT 2016

Very interesting, Ben.  What's the analysis that leads to the conclusion that  “wild” in “deuces wild” functions as an adverb?  Why is it not simply an adjective modifying "deuces"?

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Ben Zimmer
Sent: Monday, October 3, 2016 11:34 AM
Subject: wild card

My latest WSJ column is on the term "wild card" in poker, sports, and


If the article is paywalled, you can get through by Googling the headline
("Baseball Wild Cards And Others") or following a social media link, e.g.:


Some antedatings from my research...

* "wild" (adv.) 'of a playing card: having any rank chosen by the player
holding it' (OED2 1927)

_The New Harvard Song Book_, 1896, p. 141, col. 2
Ben Stephenson looks just the same.
He's always ready for a game
Of deuces wild with aces up the sleeve--
You wouldn't think he could deceive!
Davenport (Iowa) Daily Republican, Dec. 14, 1902, p. 7, col. 6
The Walling court and the Oak Lane men were playing "deuce wild," that is,
they were counting a deuce as anything they might choose.

* "wild card" 'a playing card whose rank can be chosen by the player
holding it' (OED2 1940)

Chicago Daily Tribune, May 9, 1916, p. 15, col. 5
"In the Wake of the News," by Ring W. Lardner
Bert -- Playing straight?
Tom -- All jacks, and nothing wild.
Lou -- That's the idear. Wild cards are a joke.
Saturday Evening Post, May 5, 1917, p. 10, col. 2
"A Friendly Game," by Ring W. Lardner
When you put wild cards in a poker game you blow the brains out of it. It's
an insult to the man that got it up. You might as well add the story o' the
two Irishmen to the Declaration of Independence, to make it funny.

Here's the earliest I've found for various sporting uses, in this case for
a player in (college) football that can be freely substituted into a game:

Austin (Tex.) Statesman, Jan. 15, 1959, p. A19, col. 5
Gridiron Due "Wild Card"
Los Angeles (AP) -- College football in 1959 will have the "wild card"
player to follow the famous "lonesome end" of 1958. The "wild card" player
will be a substitute who can re-enter a game as many times as his coach
chooses, provided he goes in when the game clock is stopped.

It's a bit challenging determining the early figurative use of "wild card"
applied to a person ('someone who is unpredictable'), since that
collocation can appear early on without alluding to the card-playing sense,
simply as a "card" ('an eccentric character') who is "wild." Green's
Dictionary of Slang has this example from Sean O'Casey's "The Plough and
the Stars":

1926 S. O'Casey _Plough and the Stars_ Act III: I hope Fluther hasn’t met
with any accident, he’s such a wild card.

Given that O'Casey was Irish and that the American card-playing sense of
"wild card" was not yet widespread in the 1920s, I think this should be
read compositionally (i.e., as "wild CARD" rather than "WILD card"). An
earlier example of the same phrase, well before the poker usage had come on
the scene (see Lardner 1916 above):

New York Times, May 22, 1904, p. 11, col. 4
Dick [Foote] was a wild card. Too mad a bohemian to fit in with Eastern
tastes, yet a fine actor and a ripe Shakespearean scholar.


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