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

2 Answers 2


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.

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    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! Feb 13, 2014 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, 2014 at 17:57
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    @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. :) Feb 19, 2014 at 22:02
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    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, 2014 at 17:35
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    "He's a right card" and "he's a card alright" still seem to be current according to a cursory google search. But I don't think I've said either in the last 20 years. @Paul I would say they were very common idioms.
    – Phil Sweet
    Apr 7, 2017 at 4:00

My family use it a lot and I don’t know if it has a Cornish background. Referring to someone who is very amusing

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    Welcome to EL&U. This is more of a commentary than a real answer for the question. A good expert answer includes explanation, context, and supporting facts. This is what makes the answer useful – not only to the asker, but to future visitors to the page. The question is asking about the etymology and history of the word's usage. Please consider expanding your answer.
    – Bread
    Apr 1, 2018 at 9:49

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