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This seems to be a BrE/AmE distinction - is it? And do Americans use the phrase with more of a mystical Tarot card slant, compared to its British English meaning of simply 'likely to happen'?

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    In the US, we say "in the cards", and the phrase does have mystical / Tarot overtones.
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 21, 2014 at 16:40
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    I think that here in the MidWest this is generally taken as a poker reference. (Perhaps too much Country & Western music?) From that point of view it is always 'in the cards' meaning in the deck from which your hand is being dealt. It goes along with 'lay your cards on the table' which breaks the Tarot reference, since you do not lay tricks or display hands when reading Tarot. Aug 21, 2014 at 17:11
  • I've lived in Northeast US all my life, cannot recall ever hearing "on the cards", and thought "in the cards" was a card-game metaphor, much like "playing the hand you're dealt." But we have influences from Country music in this part of the US too.
    – David K
    Aug 21, 2014 at 17:33
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  • @JonJayObermark: Although there are games which can be played with Tarot cards, which apparently predate their use as tools for divination.
    – Zack
    Sep 11, 2020 at 20:04

4 Answers 4

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The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms says both forms (in and on) are used, and that the origin is in Tarot:

in the cards also on the cards

based on the use of tarot cards (= a set of cards with pictures representing different parts of life) that are believed to be able to show what will happen in the future

But, despite the mystical origins, in both the US and UK, the idiom simply means "very likely to happen":

very likely to happen ♦ I think winning the World Series this year is definitely in the cards for Boston.Some reports suggest that a tax cut is still on the cards.

Note the the very American bent to the first example (not to mention this is the "Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms").

On a personal note, I've never heard "on the cards" used here (East Coast of the US), and somehow it sounds illogical to me; I understand "in the cards" to mean "in the reading of the cards", or "in the forecast of the cards", that is, the cards somehow contain the prediction in a metaphorical, abstract sense. A commentor (Jon Jay Obermark) also mentioned that in the American Midwest, the phrase is understood as relating to playing cards (in particular poker), and "in the cards" means "[inevitably] due to the arrangement of the deck prior to it being dealt", which also calls for the "in" (because the deck already contains the outcome).

By contrast, "on the cards" strikes my ear as firmly locative (the only thing I would expect to be on the cards is a stack of poker chips holding them down, or maybe some mustard).

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    Or the printing on the faces of the cards themselves..
    – Oldcat
    Aug 21, 2014 at 17:03
  • @Oldcat, right.
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 21, 2014 at 17:04
  • 'on the cards' could also mean writing on cards used to organise tasks :-)
    – Toni Leigh
    Apr 3, 2016 at 12:02
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In the cards (or on the cards)

  • Likely or certain to happen, as in I don't think Jim will win-it's just not in the cards. This term, originally put as on the cards, alludes to the cards used in fortune-telling. [Early 1800s]

  • very likely to happen I think winning the World Series this year is definitely in the cards for Boston. Some reports suggest that a tax cut is still on the cards.

  • Etymology: based on the use of tarot cards (a set of cards with pictures representing different parts of life) that are believed to be able to show what will happen in the future

Source: Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms Copyright and (TFD)

Be on the cards: is mainly a BrE expression :

  • UK ( US be in the cards)
  • to be likely to happen: "So you think they'll get married next year?" "I think it's on the cards."

(dictionary.cambridge.org)

To sum up, in the cards is the more AmE common expression, while on the cards, referring to something likely to happen, is the more common expression in BrE.

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    I did the same runs, but a check of the context shows many usages for both that have nothing to do with the fated meaning of this question. I think that in is more common in the US, but the ngrams are a weak tool to demonstrate that
    – bib
    Aug 21, 2014 at 16:53
  • Ngram BrE show no results for it's in the cards but plenty for it's on the cards. Aug 22, 2014 at 18:55
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    What makes you say that "on the cards" is obsolete?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 5, 2015 at 7:19
  • Ngram results show It's/it is on the cards is used to talk about a prophecy, an event that is likely to happen.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 5, 2015 at 7:25
  • @Mari-LouA - Happy Easter !! I am more familiar with in the cards.. but you are right ..in BrE it is used.
    – user66974
    Apr 5, 2015 at 7:26
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I never encounterd ‘in the cards’ in the UK or Ireland. When I first heard it in American films I thought it was a mistake.

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Here in Canada, as in the US, it's "in the cards", which to me suggests something interpreted from a tarot reading; an understanding arising from the combination of signs; akin to "in the stars". I get "on the cards", but to me, that sounds like what you'd get if someone sneezed during a poker game.

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