August 13, 2006

Sharps, sharks and gentlemen

A couple of days ago, during the recent Language Log eggcorn fest that was sparked by Mark Peters' article in the Chronicle, Alan Hogue wrote in with a suggestion that hasn't made it into the eggcorn database yet: card shark for card sharp. This is an especially interesting case. For one thing, this eggcorn (if it is one) is winning: according to Google, card shark (with 318,000 hits) has outpaced card sharp (with 167,000) by almost two to one. And the success of card shark is understandable: "shark" has developed a general slang sense "A person unusually skilled in a particular activity"; and the relevant sense of sharp, perhaps the same one involved in "sharp practice", is rare if not obsolete. So maybe card shark isn't an eggcorn after all, or at least maybe it sort of isn't one completely. And there are some interesting bits of linguistic and literary flotsam along the way to figuring this out.

The Wikipedia entry for card sharp says that:

The etymology of the term "card sharp" is debated. A popular theory is that it comes from the German word Scharper, which in one sense means swindler. Another theory, which is likely fake etymology, is that card sharp is a degenerate form of card shark, which itself is an analogy to the term pool shark. In actuality, the reverse is probably true: card sharp is the original term, and card shark is a back formation.

(Let's pass over in silence the mistaken use of the term "back formation" here -- whatever card shark is, it's not "a neologism [created] by reinterpreting an earlier word as a derivation and removing apparent affixes".) Card sharp certainly seems to be about a half a century older than card shark. The OED's first two citations relevant to card sharp are:

1870 Daily News 20 Apr., Two men..were charged with.. card-sharping in a railway carriage.
1884 HARTE On Frontier 273 To make a card sharp out of him.

And the OED doesn't give card shark at all.

Searching the ProQuest American Periodicals Series allows us to back card sharp up to 1858. "Epsom Course, Derby Day, England", in Ballou's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, Boston, Oct. 16, 1858.

The large engraving which occupies the whole of the last page, will serve to give the American public some idea of the motley crowd assembled on the Epsom race-course on the Derby Day. [...] The Derby Day may even be compared to the saturnalia of ancient Rome; for at Epsom, for one day in the year at least, the rich and the poor, the nobs and the snobs, the patricians and the plebians, are on an equality. Mark the scence on the "hill." All Bohemia seems to have emptied its floating population upon this portion of Epsom Downs. Mountebanks with monkeys, and dancers on stilts; Punch-and-Judy men, with panpipes complete; card-sharps, Ethiopian serenaders, troubadours, dark gipsey fortune-tellers; grooms, porters, postillions, cab-drivers, stable-boys, racing-touts, beggars, costermongers, newspaper reporters, policement and pickpockets, are all mixed up with the lords and the ladies, the guardsmen and the dandies, the great betting men, and the young ladies with long ringlets; and, as accessories to the motley tableau, we have a heterogeneous salmagundi of lobster-salad, champagne, pale ale, betting-books, race-cards, opera glasses, cold lamb, crinoline, pigeon-pies, smelling-bottles, whistles, penny-trumpets, jacks-in-the-box, white kid gloves, white top-coats, brown stout and beer.

The next hit from APS, for card-sharper, involves a well-known author, and picks up on the class consciousness implicit in the 1858 quote from Ballou's. It's from a serial notel by Anthony Trollope, "Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite" (Chapter XXII), Lippincott's Magazine of Literature, Science and Education, Dec. 1870:

On the second of last month Mr. George Hotspur met two men, named Walker and Bullbean, in the lodgings of the former at about nine in the evening, and remained there during the greater part of the night playing cards. Bullbean is a man well known to the police as a card-sharper. He once moved in the world as a gentleman. His trade is now to tout and find prey for gamblers.

And the uneasy association between card-sharpers and gentlemen is maintained G. Colmache, "Gentilhomme and Gentleman", Lippincott's Magazine of Literature, Science and Education, Jan. 1876.

It would be impossible to explain the difference which exists between the "gentilhomme" and the "gentleman". It is felt and understood, but cannot be described. The term "gentleman" itself is conventional. Neither birth nor accomplishments, nor even gentle manners, are necessary for undisputed assumption of the title. The man who acts as a lawyer's clerk cannot be called a gentleman, according to Judge Keating's decision, because, the title having no place in the language of the law, if he chanced to be indicted for a criminal offense he would be denominated a "laborer." Serjeant Talfourd's sweeping theory, of the "gentleman" being legally applicable to every man who has nothing to do and is out of the workhouse, cannot be accted, as it would of necessity include theives, mendicants and out-door paupers. The American police have been compelled to defend the border-line of gentility against the encroachments of their vagabond gold-seekers, card-sharpers and ruffians, and confine the term to those of respectable calling. In California the term may be applied to every individual of the male gender and the Caucasian race, the line being drawn at Chinamen. An American writer contests the acceptance of the term in England as being too vague and uncertain for comprehension by foreigners, and suggests that some less conventional designation than those now in use should be found to indicate the idea. To the moral sense it would be natural to suppose that character rather than calling would be the most important point in the consideration of the question; but it is not so. In the four-oared race of gentlemen amateurs held last year at Agecrost in Lancashire the prize of silver plate was won by a crew taken from a club composed entirely of colliers, who had been allowed to row under protest, they not being acknowledged as "gentlemen amateurs". The race over and the prize won by the colliers, an investigation place by the committee. The result was unanimity of the vote against acceptance of the qualification of the winners. Here, then, occurred the best illustration of the comprehension of the term by the moderns, for the "gentlemen," deeming that money must be a salvo to price in the bosom of all whose quality of gentleman remains unacknowleged, subscribed a handsome sum to be distributed amongst the disappointed crew. But here, again, the proof was given of the vague uncertainty of the term, for the crew of colliers were gentlement enough to refuse the proffered gift with scorn.

Another famous author also used card sharp (well, "short-card sharp") in 1876 -- Bret Harte, "Gabriel Conroy", Scribner's Monthly, May 1876:

"Your suggestion, Peter," returned Jack, with dignity, "emanates from a moral sentiment debased by love-feasts and camp meetings, and an intellect weakened by rum and gum and the contact of lager beer jerkers. It is worthy of a short-card sharp and a keno flopper, which I have, I regret to say, long suspected you to be."

As for card shark, the earliest citation I've found (in a few minutes of searching, over my breakfast coffee from a vacation place in Florida) is almost 50 years later than the 1858 Ballou's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion example of card sharp -- "Confessions of an--Played the World Over---Old-Time Gambler", The National Police Gazette, June 20, 1903:

After forty years of cheating at cards, during which time he has played in most of the cities of the world, made and lost a dozen fortunes, and out of the wreck saved enough to support in fine style a wife, three daughters and two sons at college, an old man of sixty years has retired; yet in his eager, alert mind there still dwells every secret known to the card shark.

It could be true that card shark was created by analogy to pool shark, but they seem to have appeared at about the same time. The earliest citation that I could find for pool shark was a story about "Grant Eby", from The National Police Gazette, Feb. 2, 1895, just 8 years before the card shark citation from the same periodical:

Grant Eby is the clever young pool player, better known as the "Springfield Kid," who recently defeated Champion De Oror in an offhand match at continuous pool, by the remarkable score of 200 to 99. He desires to play De Oro again, for the championship of the world. If he fails to negotiate this match, he will go to England and play John Roberts, the English Champion, at the latter's own game, English billiards, for any amount of money. Eby is a steady player, and a terror to the pool sharks who infest the country.

Curiously, if we combine the 1903 Police Gazette citation with the 1870 Trollope example, we get almost exactly the opposite of the claim made in this Wikipedia entry for card shark:

A card shark is an expert card game player who feasts on weaker "fish" players. A card shark is different from a card sharp, who uses deception for purposes of either card tricks or to cheat at a game like poker.

The "trade" of Trollope's 1870 card-sharper was "to tout and find prey for gamblers", while the 1903 Police Gazette article makes it clear that the "secrets" known to the card shark consist of methods for "cheating at cards". Still, there are two different occupations here, and it makes sense to have two different terms. And a pool shark is not someone who wins at pool by cheating, but rather someone who wins money from more naive players by being better at the game than they realize he is.

After the 1903 Police Gazette citation, the next card shark example that I found was from a work by another well-known author -- Nicholas Vachel Lindsay's "Adventures of a Literary Tramp", Outlook, Jan 9, 1909. Again, the crux of the matter is the association of the card sharp/shark and the gentleman. The context is fascinating, and worth quoting at length:

There was the smash, clang, and thud of making up a train. A negro guided me to the lantern of the freight conductor swinging in the midst of the noise. The conductor had the lean frame, the tight jaw, the fox nose, the Chinese skin of a card shark. He would have made a name for himself on the Spanish Main, some centuries since, by the cool way he would have snatched jewels from ladies' ears, and smiled when they bled. He did not smile now. He gripped his lantern like a cutlass, and the cars groaned. They were gentlemen in armor, compelled to walk the plank by this pirate with the apple-green eyes. We will call him Mr. Shark.

I put my pious letter into my pocket. "Mr. Shark, I would like to ride to Macon in the caboose."

Mr. Shark thrust his lantern under my hat-brim. I had no collar, but was not ashamed of that. He said, "I have met men like you before." He turned down the track, shouting orders. I jumped in front of him. I said: "You are mistaken. You have not met a man like me before. I am the goods. I am the wise boy from New York. I have been walking in every swamp in Florida, eating dead pig for breakfst, water-moccasins for lunch, alligators for dinner. I would like to tell you my adventures."

Mr. Shark ignored me, and went on persecuting the train.

Valdosta was a depot in the midst of darkness. I hated the darkness. I went into the depot. Vermont was offering Flagman the bottle. He drank.

Flagman asked me, "Can't you make it?"

"No. Grady turned me down. And the conductor turned me down."

Mr. Flagman said, "The sure way to ride in a caboose like a gentleman is to ask the conductor like he is a gentleman, and everybody else is a gentleman, and when he turns you down, ask him again like a gentleman." And much more, with that refrain. It was wisdom lightly given, profounder than it seemed. Let us remember the tired Flagman and engrave the substance of his saying on our souls.

I sought the Pirate again. I took off my hat. I bowed like Don Cæsar de Bazan, but gravely. "Mr. Shark, I ask you, just as one gentleman to another, to take me to Macon. I have friends in Macon."

Mr. Shark showed a pale streak of smile. "Come around at one o'clock."

By another coincidence, this took place near the start of Lindsay's walk from Jacksonville, FL, to Kentucky, in the summer of 1906. Specifically, he was in Fargo, GA, around 40 or 50 miles west of Amelia Island, FL, where I am now, a hundred years later.

Anyhow, it's plausible that card shark arose partly as an eggcorn derived from card sharp, and partly as a new formation, whether by analogy to pool shark or as a fresh shark metaphor.

[Update (from Jacksonville Airport) -- Ben Zimmer writes:

Here's an 1884 citation for "card shark" from Newspaperarchive:

1884 Perry (Iowa) Pilot 2 Apr. 8/3 Perhaps it is that the most picturesque and attractive men to be found in New York streets, are bunko men, card sharks, adventurers and dissipated club men, who live without visible means of support.

Gentlemen all, no doubt. Ben also points out that "'Card sharp/shark' was discussed in an eggcornological context on alt.usage.english last year" .]

[Update #2 -- Jay Cummings wrote:

You did notice that there are bout 16300 Ghits for "pool sharp" (subtracting out a number of "...customer pool. Sharp...") didn't you? Including, interestingly, one from Random House's "The Mavens' Word of the Day" in an article about a completely different phrase (spin doctor), and one from whose writers would hate to be called pool sharks (because pool sharks are no gentlemen) but celebrate being "sharp" pool players.

Pool shark has about 300000 Ghits.


[Update #3 -- Ernst Mayer writes:

From The Newgate Calendar, circa 1821 ( gives the date range for the appendices section as 1800-1842, but the appendix in question cites the year 1821 in several places, so it certainly could not have been written before then):

There is a new firm of Greeks established at Cheltenham, who think themselves very snug. The proprietors of this firm are, a person of the name of K--, master of the rooms, a son of K--, who kept a Hazard table, in Jermyn-street, and Pall Mall: also a Mr B--, who was a Billiard sharp in London for years. This B--, was considered the best packer of cards at Rouge et Noir of any of them, and cogger of a dice on dice, so you may judge how the people are fleeced here.

An excerpt from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado (1885):

The billiard-sharp who any one catches,
His doom's extremely hard--
He's made to dwell--
In a dungeon cell
On a spot that's always barred.
And there he plays extravagant matches
In fitless finger-stalls
On a cloth untrue
With a twisted cue
And elliptical billiard balls!

From P.G. Wodehouse, A Prefect's Uncle - Chapter 5 (1903):

Considering his age he was a remarkable player. Later on in life it appeared likely that he would have the choice of three professions open to him, namely, professional billiard player, billiard marker, and billiard sharp.

Returning briefly to the card table: Andrew Steinmetz's classic 2-volume The Gaming Table (1870) also makes specific use of the term "card-sharper."


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 13, 2006 12:18 PM