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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.


Question

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 following 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 '14 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 '14 at 9:44
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    @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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 at 15:46
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+100

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]

There were many variations of whist played in Russia, which this game was similar to. Mari-Lou in the comments has found a source that showing biritch is a variation of an earlier Russian game called yeralash. So while it's not clear whether the word biritch was originally Russian, most of the rules of the game are.

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".

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.

  • 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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 at 1:01
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About biritch/ biryutch: the word was not widely used (it was scarce, in fact), but what Wikipedia said is wrong. The word can be found in the Russian dictionary of Vladimir Dal (a recognized dictionary) of 1863-1866 (and reissues). The problem comes from the fact that around 1900 the bridge authority Robert Frederic Foster (after William Dalton, another bridge expert) said that the word "biritch" was not a Russian word. Neither made extensive research.

Note also that in Romanian the word "britch" exists, but the meaning is "razor", without relation to a game.

I don't assert 100% that the name of Bridge or Britch (its old name) comes from the Russian word "Biritch", but this is the more probable explanation.

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  • "Russian whist" is only a "gnosis", used by Collinson, to explain the word "Biritch". Of course, all the different whists from Russia are also "Russian whist" : yeralash, vint, preference....
  • Biritch is also an old russian word. The pronunciation is "britch". The meaning is "announcer".
  • The contribution of Turkey in the all history of card games is absolutely insignificant
  • The "Biritch" game, is an evolution of the Russian game of yeralash (notrump), with an Austrian contribution, the double ("Kontra" in german), and a French contribution, the dummy (which is mandatory in Biritch, not in yeralash)(it was in France that the dummy was very popular)
  • the word "bridge" (the game) is a corruption of britch (same pronunciation)
  • The biritch/britch game came in Constantinople about 1873 from Romania (two proofs) (and before from Austria and Russia)
  • Greeks were at the origin of the introduction of the game of "Britch" in UK (before 1880) and in France.
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    Do you have a source for all these facts? Wikipedia says that the word birich was last used in Russian around 1700. Could it have been the source of the name of a card game which couldn't have been invented before 1850 or so? – Peter Shor Dec 4 '14 at 15:44
  • but wikipedia is not even a joke. – Fattie May 23 '15 at 16:24
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Walther von Wartburg, the Swiss philologist, provides the following information in the entry for bridge of the Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (the Kleinschreibung is Wartburg's):

  • Dieses spiel ist russischen ursprungs. So erschien noch 1886 in England ein traktat Biritch or Russian Whist. Dieses russische spiel wurde zum ersten mal 1873 von Westeuropäern in Konstantinopel, wo sie tätig waren, gespielt. Vor allem war es der italienische diplomat Graziani, der es einführte. Das spiel verbreitete sich rasch in der eleganten kosmopolitischen gesellschaft in Athen, in Ägypten, an der Riviera, und dann nach USA, von wo es um 1890 nach Frankreich gelangt ist. Russisch bric wurde als bridge ins englische aufgenommen, und dieses drang dann in die andern sprachen ein. Dass das wort mit bridge „brücke” identifiziert wurde, zeigt sich daran, dass es im italienischen einige zeit ponte genannt wurde.

My translation:

  • The game is of Russian origin. A treatise called Biritch or Russian Whist was published in England in 1886. This Russian game was played for the first time in 1873 by West Europeans active in Constantinople. It was introduced in particular by the Italian diplomat Graziani. The game spread quickly in the elegant and cosmopolitan circles of Athens, Egypt and the Riviera, and then to the United States, from where it came to France around 1890. Russian bric was loaned as bridge into English, which then made its way into the other languages. That the word was identified with bridge meaning brücke, pons, can be seen in the fact that for a while it was called ponte in Italian.

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