The Folklore of Magic #16: “Poker” Slang and Geordie Tait

I recall the little debate that shook the forums here on StarCityGames after Evan Erwin wrote his Battle Royale Round 6: Live Nude Girls article. Geordie Tait, manly man that he is, leapt onto Erwin like Evan was a May bishop… All for the offence of misusing poker terminology in a Magic article. But despite that Evan was wrong, I still have a slight problem with Tait’s argument. It’s not that he’s made factual errors; it’s that he’s made theoretical ones.

I was in a university seminar the other day, and my professor, who is, I suppose, about fifty years old, used an expression I’d never expected to hear waft melodiously from his venerable lips. Something — I can’t quite remember what; it was probably some kind of traditional basket-weaving technique or the like — was, in his opinion, the bee’s knees. My inquiring mind, honed to a level of curiosity only ever attained by Tibetan monks and fairy enthusiasts (sorry, fairy euthanists), sparked to attention.

“Ian,” I asked, “What’re the bee’s knees?”

You see, I could recall the little debate that shook the forums here on StarCityGames after Evan Erwin wrote his Battle Royale Round 6: Live Nude Girls article. Geordie Tait, manly man that he is, leapt onto Erwin like he [Evan] was a May bishop… All for the offence of misusing poker terminology in a Magic article. In the words of Tait:

Do not try to use poker terminology if you don’t play poker, or have no idea what you are talking about.

“Slow Rolling” is the act of having a powerful hand/card/play and taking forever to do it. For an example of slow rolling, well…PS: Demonfire you. That is a slow roll. The way you used it, describing cards that were played later than normal, or non-powerful plays that nonetheless took a while, is incorrect. […] (Slow rolling is considered very rude.)

“Drawing Dead” is the state you’re in when you have few outs, i.e., there is no card in the deck that can help you. You were using it to describe bad draws. This is incorrect, and is in fact exactly the opposite of Drawing Dead – if you have good cards but you’re drawing trash, then you at least have outs. (Outs are cards than help you.)

In any case, please stop using these terms. You’re like a five-year old kid taking batting practice in the majors and trying to hit a home run. I know you’re excited. I would be too. But your stance is all wrong, you’re choking way too far up on the bat, and you can’t hit a curveball worth a DAMN.

This is a major theme with all of your work. You’re throwing yourself headfirst into all the terminology you see used by the people you read, writing articles about the same things they do using the same terms they do… And you’re not nearly good enough to do that yet.

To be entirely honest, I find this kind of forum post terribly gratifying because it displays a sense of absolutist obstinacy that is rarely found outside of very old manuscripts and Papal Bulls. Not that I have anything against Tait’s examples. Those are, indeed, two pieces of poker terminology which Erwin seems to have muddled up in such a way that he resembles nothing so much as a dung beetle which — though under the impression that it has captured a ball of lovely dung — is, in fact, rolling a Scotch egg back to the nest. And if you’ve ever had a Scotch egg, you’ll know that this is not an enviable position for Erwin to be in.

I have, nevertheless, a slight problem with Tait’s argument. It’s not that he’s made factual errors; it’s that he’s made theoretical ones.

Language is no more static than culture in general. Words and expressions do not cease to evolve upon creation. As much as I, as a fairy specialist, would find my job much simpler if Medieval fairies were precisely the same as Early Modern or Romantic or Disney or Post-Modern fairies, they aren’t, and change over time is something that pedants like Tait and I have to deal with. So, slow roll and drawing dead are terms with precise meanings in the poker world? Perhaps. I wouldn’t know — although, in researching this article, I have found a number of different definitions for them on various poker websites. From Tait’s point of view, some of these definitions are simply wrong.

But to get back to the bee’s knees. In that same forum thread, the ever-cuddly Talen Lee made the following comment:

There is, however, some magic lingo that appears to have been influenced [by poker]. For example – I always thought ‘the nuts’ was connected to the expression ‘the mutt’s nuts’, which I always figured was the more adolescent version of ‘bee’s knees.’

Well, I’d heard the bee’s knees in Magic contexts before, and I hear the nuts all the time. However, I’d no idea where these expressions came from. The answer, apparently, is that they originated in the seedy poker world. So, what was my professor, Ian Russell, doing talking about the bee’s knees? Ian could not tell me where the figure of speech came from, but he certainly did not pick it up from a card game. Intrigued, he offered a number of speculative etymologies:

1) The bee’s knees is nothing more than rhyming slang, and some pieces of rhyming slang are propagated despite being absolutely meaningless.
2) The bee’s knees does, actually, have something to do with a bee’s knees.
3) The bee’s knees has some strange relationship with the synonymous the dog’s bollocks.

These were purely speculative. What surprised me was the last one since the dog’s bollocks is clearly the same thing as the mutt’s nuts, only without the delightful rhyme. Not being Scottish (or English, for that matter), I’d simply never heard either the bee’s knees or the dog’s bollocks used in conversation, however impolite those conversations may have been. At this point, another professor — an American, Tom McKean — walked in, and Ian asked him where he thought the bee’s knees came from. He, too, gave the rhyming slang guess, but he also playfully suggested that it had something to do with the fact that the bee’s knees are where pollen accumulates. This spurred me to consider that, looked at in an appropriately skewed manner — the bee’s knees and the mutt’s nuts are even metaphorically analogous, since both involve organs of reproduction (even if, in the bee’s case, the reproduction is entirely unintentional).

Ian explained that the mutt’s nuts is most commonly used when drinking, an example being, “This ale is the mutt’s nuts.” He also pointed out that the cat’s whiskers is used in this manner as well. So we have at least four synonymous expressions involving parts of animals. But where did they come from? Tom popped off to the computer and looked the bee’s knees up on www.yaelf.com:

A bee’s “corbiculae”, or pollen-baskets, are located on its tibiae (midsegments of its legs). The phrase “the bee’s knees,” meaning “the height of excellence,” became popular in the U.S. in the 1920s, along with “the cat’s whiskers” (possibly from the use of these in radio crystal sets), “the cat’s pajamas” (pajamas were still new enough to be daring), and similar phrases which made less sense and didn’t endure: “the eel’s ankle,” “the elephant’s instep,” “the snake’s hip”

Ian had, meanwhile, looked the expression up on the Oxford English Dictionary (that’s www.oed.com for you punters out there). Ol’ Oxy concurred that it was related to the cat’s whiskers and gave some usage examples:

1797 MRS. TOWNLEY WARD Let. 27 June in N. & Q. (1896) X. 260 It cannot be as big as a bee’s knee.

1870 G. M. HOPKINS Jrnl. (1937) 133 Br. Yates gave me the following Irish expressions... As weak as a bee’s knee.

1894 G. F. NORTHALL Folk-phrases 7 As big as a bee’s knee.

1923 H. C. WITWER Fighting Blood iii. 101 You’re the bee’s knees, for a fact!

1936 H. L. MENCKEN Amer. Lang. (ed. 4) 561 The flea’s eyebrows, the bee’s knees and the canary’s tusks will be recalled.

1958 Times 15 Aug. 9/4 Lord Montgomery… holds that to label anything the ‘cat’s whiskers’ is to confer on it the highest honour, and the ‘bee’s knees’ is not far behind it as a compliment.

Oxford — being pedantic — notes that the bee’s knees seems first to mean something insignificant. All of the usages the dictionary offers prior to 1923 are of this meaning. In other words, the bee’s knees has neatly reversed its definition over time. It has evolved.

We can assume either that the same thing happened to the dog’s bollocks and the cat’s whiskers, or that these expressions came later than the bee’s knees. Who knows? I certainly don’t.

So, we might ask, if Geordie Tait were the kind of man to make an issue of misuse of so non-specific a term as the bee’s knees (and I’m not sure that he is), what would he consider to be the correct usage? The original one or the current one? There’s a lot at stake here since, after all, a pedant who walks around saying that a no-land opening hand is the bee’s knees is going to get plenty of weird looks when he mulligans.

Things get even worse if this pedant happens to be — pardon the expression — a barn. Not long ago, the late, great Ted Knutson defined barn in the follow way on Magicthegathering.com:

Barn – Short for barnacle, this sometimes derogatory, still strangely amusing term is used to describe players who are not good friends of yours, but still hang around. (“We didn’t invite him, but Tim kind of barned along.”)

It can also be used to describe the behavior of hanging out with someone better/more famous than you. (“I totally barned Richard Garfield at dinner the other night.”)

Finally, it is also used to describe the relationship one might have with a young Magic protégé. (“He seemed like a nice kid and was willing to learn, so I took him in as my barn.”)

This seems straightforward enough and is, like David Cameron, absolutely bursting with flavour. But there’s a problem. We may know that barn is short for barnacle, but we do not know what barnacle means. Let’s turn to the Oxford English Dictionary again:

“The earliest attainable forms (omitting barbates in Albertus Magnus and barliates in Vincentius Bellovacensis, which seem too far off) are the Eng. bernekke, Anglo-Lat. bernaca (Giraldus Cambr. c 1175), barneta, ? barneca (Gervase of Tilbury c 1211), berneka (Vincent. Bellovac. 1200-1250). In English, this could only be bare-neck or bear-neck, of which the application is not evident. The history of this word is involved in an extraordinary growth of popular mythology, traced back as far as the 11th or 12th c. by Prof. Max Müller, Lect. Sc. Lang. (ed. 7) II. 583-604. It is there suggested that bernacula might be a variant of *pernacula, a possible dim. of perna ‘a kind of shell-fish,’ afterwards confused with *bernicula, a supposed aphetic form of *hibernicula, which might be applied to the barnacle-goose from its being found in Hibernia. Others seek the source of the primitive bernaca in Celtic, comparing Gaelic bairneach, Welsh brenig, limpets. But as all the evidence shows that the name was originally applied to the bird which had the marvellous origin, not to the shell which, according to some, produced it, conjectures assuming the contrary seem to be beside the mark. The form bernacle, it will be seen, is not found before 15th c., and bernacula seems to be only its modern Lat. adaptation. If med.L. bernecla, bernicla, are earlier, they are suspiciously like erroneous forms of bernecha, bernicha. No connexion with BARNACLE n.1 can be traced: bernac was masc., bernaque, -ache fem., in Fr.]”

Confusing, right? To help you out, I’ll let you know the vital bit: Barnacle seems to have, rather perversely, originated from the barnacle goose. This appears to be the equivalent of Kai Budde being born after the printing of Voidmage Protegy. And yet this is not so. Originally, what is now called the barnacle goose was simply called the barnacle. Again, the Oxford English Dictionary:

“A species of wild goose (Anas leucopsis) nearly allied to the Brent Goose, found in the arctic seas (where alone it breeds), and visiting the British coasts in winter.

“This bird, of which the breeding-place was long unknown, was formerly believed to be produced out of the fruit of a tree growing by the sea-shore, or itself to grow upon the tree attached by its bill (whence also called Tree Goose), or to be produced out of a shell which grew upon this tree, or was engendered as a kind of ‘mushroom’ or spume from the corruption or rotting of timber in the water.”

Oxford goes on to give some examples, the first three of which are:

a1227 NECKAM in Promp. Parv. 32 De ave que vulgo dicitur bernekke.

1387 TREVISA Higden Rolls Ser. I. 335 ere bee bernakes foules liche to wylde gees; kynde brynge hem for wonderliche out of trees.

c1400 MANDEVILLE xxvi. 264 Of the Bernakes… In oure Contree weren Trees that beren a Fruyt, that becomen Briddes fleeynge. 1440 [see].

The result? Barnacle came to mean a sticky, little sea-going organism by means of the folkloric explanation for the birth of a species of goose. Since the oceanic barnacles were thought to resemble the nuts from which the geese were hatched, they took on the bird’s name. In terms of Magic, this leaves us in a real pickle: When we call someone a barn, are we suggesting that he or she clings onto a pro or that a pro somehow comes into being on account of his barn? The second definition is surely the pedantically correct one, and it’s subtly pleasing to think that a pro — an expert Magic player — doesn’t truly come into his own until he acquires a barn or two. Well, perhaps not two because that would imply that the pro was hatched from two eggs, which isn’t precisely possible.

And come to think of it, even though we’re comparing the pro to a goose, the metaphor breaks down once we start talking about eggs. In fact, the pro is the product of nuts. Could these be the mutt’s nuts? We may never know.

I will close by making my point as clear as I possibly can: Geordie Tait, you are the bee’s knees.


Adam Grydehøj
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