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I've always thought that the name of this card game comes from the English word bridge (the structure) but it is not quite like that. It's the English pronunciation of a game called Biritch, which was also known as Russian Whist.

Etymology of the word from Etymonline:

card game, 1886 (perhaps as early as 1843), an alteration of biritch, but the source and meaning of that are obscure. "Probably of Levantine origin, since some form of the game appears to have been long known in the Near East" [OED]. One guess is that it represents Turkish *bir-üç "one-three," because one hand is exposed and three are concealed. The game also was known early as Russian whist (attested in English from 1839).

Furthermore from the book "The Theory of Gambling and Statistical Logic" By Richard A. Epstein:

The initial progenitor of all Bridge forms is the game of Triumph, which gained currency about A.D. 1500. In the mid-seventeenth century, Triumph evolved into Whist(1), a partnership game for four players. The change from Whist to Bridge occurred about 1886 with the publication in London of a small pamphlet, titled "Biritch," or "Russian Whist." This title created the fallacy that Bridge is of Russian origin(2). In actually, while the precise etymology cannot be traced with assurance, the word has likely evolved from a Levantine source.

(1) The English lawyer Edmond Hoyle produced a world titled "A Short Treatise on Whist," which led to his position as the panjandrum of game rules. (2) The word "Biritch" is not a recognized Russian word, however liberal be the retransliteration to Cyrillic. The Russians did play a card game called "Ieralashch" resembling short Whist without a trump suit. From this game are derived "Siberia" and "Preference," which share certain characteristics with Bridge.


This is the furthest I can go in my research (looks like an answer already) but is it possible to go further? Even it says obscure, are there any sources that goes deeper and gives more details (for the below questions especially)?

Related questions:

  • Why is the word corrupted to a word — bridge — that is already used? For example, why not britch? Is there a folk etymology here?

  • How come there is a Levantine and Turkish origin? Can it be that Russians learned this game from Ottomans in the era of wars, or did they adopt a name from the Ottoman Turkish language? (Also, the passage from the source book mentions that Biritch is not a recognized Russian word.)

Note: "Biritch" does not sound like a mispronunciation of some Turkish word or phrase meaning no trump. Interestingly, a Turkish language etymology website says that the name of this game briç is a loan word from English bridge. But this is about the modern Turkish language; there is also the Ottoman Turkish language used at that time which I can't trace back.

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Tip: avoid posting thought provoking or challenging questions on a Sunday. –  Mari-Lou A May 25 at 9:38
I'd be curious to know if biritch was played by the Russian aristocracy and if their British peers adopted the card game. I think this question is probably better suited to HistorySE. –  Mari-Lou A May 25 at 9:44
@Mari-Lou: it probably originated as a Turkish variation of Whist; it was called "Russian whist" because it was played by the Russian colony in Constantinople; see my answer. –  Peter Shor May 25 at 11:34
I think this website: The origins and history of bridge might be of interest. I would post an answer myself... but I've never played a game of bridge in my life. –  Mari-Lou A May 25 at 12:35
@Mari-LouA: What's wrong with Sunday? If you think that it gets less attention, I might think of placing a bounty on it later. I also thought of History and Linguistics stackexchange but this is a bit of mixture of topics. –  ermanen May 25 at 15:46

1 Answer 1

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Some of your questions are answered by this website, which contains a transcription of the original pamphlet describing biritch. Collison (the author of the pamphlet, and a railroad engineer who worked for a time in Turkey) apparently wrote a letter to The Saturday Review dated 28 May 1906, where he describes the history of the game. I quote:

Between 1880-4 I spent a considerable time in Constantinople and Asia Minor, where I played what was then called 'Biritch or Russian Whist'. I was then living, while in England, at Cromwell Road and introduced the game to many of my English friends, who liked it so much that they asked me to have the rules printed. ... 'Biritch' was attributed to the Russian colony at Constantinople; in my time the dominating social and political element.    [not my ellipses, but the website's]

So it appears quite likely to have been not a Russian game, but a variation of a Turkish game played by Russians in Constantinople. The word "biritch" means (in the game) no trump, although it is unclear whether this meaning is connected to its etymology. Maybe somebody who knows Turkish could tell us whether biritch might be a Russian mispronunciation of some word or phrase meaning "no trump". EDIT: Mari-Lou in the comments has found a source showing biritch is a variation of an earlier Russian game called yeralash. So while the word biritch does not appear to be Russian, most of the rules of the game are.

More information probably can be found in the original version of The Saturday Review letter and also in another reference given on the above website: Thierry Depaulis and Jac Fuchs, "First Steps of Bridge in the West: Collinson's 'Biritch'", The Playing-Card, Vol. 32, no. 2, Sep.-Oct. 2003, pp. 67-76. Unfortunately, I can find neither of these online.

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There is an online repository of much of The Saturday Review but not 1906. Those interested in The Playing Card might want to join IPCS which publishes it in order to get access to back issues. –  Andrew Leach May 25 at 12:08
There's a pdf file which has more info on its history google.com/… and this website says: "it was not until 1742 that the first book devoted to whist appeared: Edmond Hoyles famous Short Treatise on Whist" –  Mari-Lou A May 25 at 12:26
@Mari-Lou: nice find. So biritch takes many of its rules from a Russian version of whist, yeralash. And the main rule change from yeralash is the existence of the dummy, which makes the etymology of birich deriving from Turkish bir-üç ("one-three") seem more likely. In googling 19th century source, it appears that the name Russian whist was used not only for birich and yeralash but also vint, another whist-like game popular in Russia. –  Peter Shor May 25 at 13:02
@Peter: "Biritch" does not sound like a mispronunciation of some Turkish word or phrase meaning "no trump". Interestingly, a Turkish language etymology website says that the name of this game "briç" is a loan word from English "bridge". But this is about modern Turkish language, there is also Ottoman Turkish language used at that time which I can't trace back. –  ermanen May 27 at 1:01

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