English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

What is the origin of the use of the word "card" to refer to an eccentric person? How did this meaning develop?

share|improve this question
up vote 12 down vote accepted

The earliest recorded use of card in this sense was in an 1836 work by Dickens (Sketches By Boz) in which he referred to someone as "a knowing card" ("Mr. Thomas Potter whose great aim it was to be considered as a 'knowing card'".) He used it again in Bleak House in 1852: “Such an old card has this; so deep, so sly, and secret.” This usage sprang from cards in the sense of playing cards, which had long used such phrases as a sure card, a safe card, a best card and so on. Cards were used for playing cards at least from Late Middle English, from Old French carte, from Latin carta, charta, from Greek khartēs 'papyrus leaf.

Earlier, in the 1500s on, a good card was used, but this probably (my guess, not official) referred to carded wool, where a good card meant a carding job on fleece that resulted in a clean, litter-free batch of carded wool. There are references to thistles and combs with card, which would also be in the manner of carding wool.

Another source wherein card (alone) was used to indicate a witty or eccentric person, a "character," puts the first usage at 1911 in The Card, a novel by Arnold Bennett.

share|improve this answer
I think you're absolutely right. My initial guess (as "armchair etymologist") was that it would relate to the Joker playing card in a deck (i.e. - an unpredictable character). But as you (and OED) say, it appears to derive from almost the exact opposite (a sure card, first attested by OED 1560). Live and learn! – FumbleFingers Feb 13 '14 at 23:54
In all my life, up until the day I posted this question, I had never heard "card" being used in this sense. Is this usage common to any particular part of the world? – Paul Feb 19 '14 at 17:57
@Paul - in the US, it was quite common, say, 40 years ago and back from there, but has fallen out of popular use since then. I used to say it to my kids. :) – medica Feb 19 '14 at 22:02
Dialectical note, my mother (born 1958) still uses this a lot, so it survives in at least one part of Appalachia in at least one person – A. Wilson Jul 9 '14 at 17:35

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.