the language of bridge

On occasion, I invite people whose insights I trust to contribute guest posts for the blog. On rare occasions, they deliver the goods! I hope you enjoy this one on terminology in the game of contract bridge.


My mother could never understand how I was allowed a (AmE) college/(BrE) university degree without learning to play bridge, but I was educated in the decade of Trivial Pursuit. I tried to rectify this gap in my education in the early 2000s. After maybe three lessons, the couple who were teaching me had a fight and that was the end of that! Maybe learning to play bridge be my retirement project. One of the dozens I have in mind. At any rate, I am not the person to tell you about bridge terminology, but here’s someone who is.


Simon Cochemé is an English bridge writer and is a regular contributor of light-hearted articles to bridge magazines. He has recently published a collection of the best of them in a book, Bridge with a Twist (Master Point Press). ‘Destined to be ranked as a classic, alongside its prequel, Oliver Twist.’


There are seven chapters on the language of bridge – vocabulary and idioms from (a)round the world. This post is an edited version of the chapter on American terminology – written with American spelling.



The Language of Bridge III


In which we look across the Atlantic at what the Americans have to say


George Bernard Shaw (or possibly Oscar Wilde) said that England and America were two nations separated by a common language. Bridge terminology certainly proves the point. We say protect, they say balance; we say switch, they say shift; we say dummy, they [sometimes] say board; we say peter, they say echo; we say tomahto, they say tomayto; we say finesse, they say hook; we say singleton, they say stiff; we say discard, they [often] say pitch.


There’s more. They say push instead of flat board, down one instead of one down, ace-fourth instead of ace-to-four, set for beating the contract, and drawing trump rather than drawing trumps, as though they always played in twelve-card fits. You will still occasionally read deuce for the two of a suit, although the quaint trey for the three has all but disappeared.


There are some words that have yet to cross the Pond: tight, meaning doubleton, as in ‘He held king-queen tight’ and swish, meaning passed out, as in ‘The bidding went 2♠, swish’. I have also heard (but not seen in print) ‘Four hearts in the East’ where the British would say ‘Four hearts by East’.


Things get even more confusing with the word tap. Where we say force (as in force declarer), they say tap; but where we say tap (in plumbing), they say faucet

The most extreme of American phrases is ruff ‘n’ sluff for ruff-and-discard. I haven’t seen sluff or slough used anywhere else in bridge literature, so presumably the lure of the rhyme was too hard to resist, as it was with surf ‘n’ turf.


Americans like variety in the presentation of their sports results: ‘The Red Sox downed the 49ers’, for example, or ‘The Chipmunks whupped the Bears’. The English tend to stick to the ‘Chelsea beat Liverpool’ formula, with the occasional ‘Villa lost to Spurs’ thrown in. Americans [tend to] put the winning team first, whereas the English usually put the home team first. Either way, the English results are a bit boring. 


Sporting metaphors abound in American writing, and I have seen bridge articles where a player covers all bases, or makes a clutch shot, or plays a shut-out. I have no idea what slam-dunk means; it sounds as though you had twelve tricks on top but went one down. I have yet to find mention of a triple-double (basketball) or pass interference (American football), but I’m sure they’re out there.


We must fight fire with fire; difficult contracts must be played on sticky wickets and small slams hit for six Declarer must play a blinder, and overbidders should be caught offside or shown the red card.


There is a nice expression that I have seen American teachers use, encouraging their pupils to draw trumps before the defenders can ruff something: Get the kids off the streets.


The French have names for the kings on their cards (David (from the Bible), Charles (after Charlemagne), Caesar (Julius), and Alexander (the Great). I understand the Americans have noted it and like the idea. They don’t have any real kings of their own, so the debate is whether to reuse the Mount Rushmore quartet, or to go with four from the shortlist of Martin Luther, Stephen, Billie Jean, Burger, Kong and Elvis. [jk—ed.]


Let’s have a deal. This one features Zia Mahmood, who was (AmE) on (BrE in) the USA team against Italy in the final of the World Championships in 2009.


[The chapter goes on to describe a bridge deal, the bidding and play, in great detail using the American terms. It will be completely incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t play bridge. If you want to see whether the USA team wins or loses, you will have to buy the book …]




Lynne says: For good measure, here’s a corpus search of that last difference, in/on the team, which goes far beyond bridge:




Bridge with a Twist (RRP £14.95) is available at a number of online sites.





  1. Just sticking in a comment so I'll be notified of the rest!

    1. Aha, a comment catcher (originally from LiveJournal, now more commonly on the descendent Dreamwidth)

  2. My parents tried to teach me to play bridge in the early 60s when I was a teen in Texas, but they gave up after a few tries. But my earliest memories include lots of bridge games between my parents and their friends, including my mother's bridge club, so I heard a lot of the language. Interestingly, I had a hard time here figuring out which words were supposed to be American; the ones I recognize almost all seem to be the British terms.

  3. One of the more curious bits of jargon, and one it took me a while to get used to, is describing a suit of five cards headed by the ace as "ace-fifth." It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, taken literally, but you can see how it fills a need. Of course, you could say "five cards headed by the ace" or "ace and four others" but those are wordy. You can't say "ace-five" because that would mean those two cards. I don't know when the phrasing "ace-fifth" arose. I know someone who learned his bridge a long time ago (1940ish) and he typically says "ace five times" -- which makes even less sense, I guess.

    You can also say "ace-jack-fifth" to mean five cards including the ace and jack -- because those two are generally more important than the smaller ones.

  4. I have never learned to play bridge, although I am the only one in my family who doesn't. My parents had to teach both my sister and my daughter (on separate occasions) after their respective partners were horrified to find they didn't play! After which, whenever either couple visited, a game of bridge always happened. I could have learnt, but simply was not and am not interested!

    English sport results may or may not be duller than American ones, but we are certainly up for some giggles: "Lillee, b Willey, c Dilley" is a classic, as is "East Fife, four; Forfar five."

  5. Sluff is pretty much standard in all American casual conversation about card games where the tactic is relevant in my experience. Discard is used in more written discussion. I've never heard ace-fourth or ace-to-four, four-with-ace would be the formula, I think.

  6. ‘The Red Sox downed the 49ers’?! Yikes!

    We may like some variety in how we write headlines, but I don't think that variety extends to teams in different sports competing.

    1. Ha! I was so intent on making the right words bold or italic that I didn't notice that, but you are so right!

    2. For those in the UK who care, the (Boston) Red Sox are a baseball team, while the (San Francisco) 49ers play (American rules) football.

    3. British newspapers sometimes have a round-up of scores from American sports and they once reported a result that they alleged was between the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Lions, another baseball/NFL cross.

      Mind you, I once saw a UK newspaper report a baseball score as 33-2 after eleven innings. That must have been some 11th.

  7. As an American with extremely limited experience playing bridge I may be a cult of one on my linguistic views, but I'm quite familiar with dummy and have never heard board. Ditto with finesse versus hook and discard versus pitch.

    With respect to set versus beating the contract, despite offering "to defeat (an opponent or a contract) in bridge" as one of its definitions of set I would offer a broader definition as follows (forgive the split infinitive): to soundly defeat an opponent in cards. My reasoning goes back to my grandfather (born 1900), who never played bridge, loved to play pinochle, and after soundly defeating anyone at that game would almost certainly have declared something like "We really set them this time!"

    1. I play a lot of bridge, possibly too much, and I can say that 'board' is pretty common for 'dummy.' Although 'board' is also used to mean a deal of the cards; as in 'tonight's game will be 8 rounds of three boards each.'

      I know one person who consistently says 'hook' for 'finesse,' but he learned to play a long time ago.

      Rather than 'discard' or 'pitch' I usually say e.g. that I will 'throw' the club losers on the good diamonds.

      For all I know there are regional variations. I'm an east-coaster.

    2. Yes, I expressed some of these reservations to Simon (who's had trouble getting onto comments here). It's a pretty common thing in discussions of other's English that upon hearing a synonym in another English, people say "oh, that must be *the* American/British/etc. for X". But it is a fact of English that most of us have several ways of saying many things.

      One thing I enjoyed seeing, though, were deuce and trey, which just remind me of playing canasta with my grandma. :)

    3. Lynne --that reminds me that around 1980 in Brighton there was a rather seedy pub (on the Old Steine, if I remember right) called "The Dog Tray." I think the name derived from betting on greyhound races, but the pub sign was a dog sliding downhill on a tea tray.

  8. As an American player I use and hear 'set' and 'shift' all the time, hear 'down one' far more often than 'one down'. The common spoken phrase I know is 'draw trump', never draw trumps, and the term for trump and discard would be 'a ruff and a sluff'.

  9. Unfortunately, guest-blogger Simon C has been rebuffed by Blogger in his attempts to reply to the comments so far. He's asked me to pass on this message:

    "Thanks for your interest and insights. Sorry about the Red Sox!"

  10. This post leaves me rather folorn.
    My mother would have absolutely loved this book, but sadly I can't give her a copy as she died recently.
    She was mad-keen on bridge, having taken it up in retirement and discovered that she had considerable aptitude for it - which may have been related to her training in, and love of, mathematics.
    Bridge became her life, basically.
    She was good at it, becoming the Playing Captain of the local bridge club and leading them to victory in numerous tournaments.
    I never took up her offer to teach me how to play. It never appealed. Perhaps like Lynne, I enjoy words more than numbers.
    Anyhow, what prompted me to post is that a commenter above came perilously close to descibing bridge as "a game of cards", a description at which, I gather, bridge devotees baulk.
    My mother told me once that on a bridge-cum-sightseeing holiday she organised, the driver of the coach repeatedly referred to their bridge as "your cards".
    The passengers retaliated by referring to his luxury coach as "your bus".

    1. Thanks for this, Grhm. I send my good thoughts and condolences to you.

  11. The phrase "plays a shut-out" in the original text should be "Pitch a shutout."


The book!

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)