Gombeens and grongers: Card games in the DNE

If you're playing 120s, a hand like this will get you all the tricks if spades are trump.

While the calendar says it’s the spring of the year, the thermostats are still on, the sweaters have yet to be put away, and some nights it’s still too cold to venture outside. With the hectic pace of life, there are lots of things you could do to busy yourself, but when is the last time you sat down for a rousing card game? For some of you, it might be yesterday since Newfoundlanders are pretty serious about their cards and there is no shortage of weekly games that you can join.

Playing cards, of course, didn’t originate in Newfoundland but like other cultures, several games have become ingrained in our cultural heritage. Perhaps the most well-known game is the trick-taking 120s (hundred-and-twentys). Scarce is the Newfoundlander who hasn’t heard of it or who doesn’t know the game inside and out although some say it’s getting harder to find kids who know how to play the game. Even so, there are now computer versions of the game. Other names for 120s are one-twenty, growl, auction, forty-fives. The game is played in Scotland, Ireland, Nova Scotia, Merrimack Massachusetts (where there are strong Irish and Scottish populations), Newfoundland and likely many more places.  Do you know other names for this game?

Word-file for 'auction' from 1968. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Now, if you have played any version of this game with a crowd, you know that things can get pretty loud and boisterous, especially when all hands start slamming their cards onto the table. If the pace of the game has slowed too much for your liking, you might say “Have it about you!”, meaning hurry up.

Word-file for 'have' from 1970. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Indeed, this is a fast-paced game and you might be in such a hurry or have such a lovely hand that your bid in a game of one-twenty might be 30 for 60. If it is, then you’re “goin’ for a jink”.

Word-file for 'jink'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

If you’re playing the deciding game, especially in a game of auction, you might call it the who-shall or the who-shallyroo.

Word-file for 'who shall' from 1974. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Another children’s card game that has some roots here in Newfoundland is Joanie or Johnny-come-tickle-me. In this game the winner is the person who gets rid of their cards first. From the DNE citations, the rules are not quite clear.

Word-file for 'johnny' from 1973 with IPA transcript. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Particularly in recent years, poker has become quite a popular card game with tournaments popping up all over the globe and the internet. These days the stakes typically involve money. Gone are the days when you could show up with a pocket full of tobacco and gamble with your gombeens.

Word-file for 'gombeen'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Playing cards can often require a good deal of luck. If you are terribly unlucky, you are lewerdly.

Sometimes card sharks hold onto their best card until they’re sure they can win by playing it. When you “go your wincy”, you’ve just played your best card to win. Away from the card table, this phrase also means that you’re going as fast as you can.

Word-file for 'wincy' from 1971. Note the phonetic transcription by DNE editor Dr. John Widdowson. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

A gronger can mean something big like a big fish but it can also be an ace in a card game according to one from the Northern Peninsula. There is only one citation for this word in the DNE research collection and the source suggests that the term was common on the old French Shore.

The next time you’re “workin’de coaleys”, see if you notice any card game terminology. If you know of other Newfoundland card games, let us know! We’d love to hear from you.

Word-file for 'coalies'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

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2 Responses to Gombeens and grongers: Card games in the DNE

  1. Pat says:

    Has anyone information about a Nfld card game called “All Fours”. I played it with my relatives in Bonavista Bay many years ago.

    • suzannepower says:

      Hi Pat. Thanks for your query. The DNE research collection does have two citations for all fours from Change Islands but they were not used in the dictionary. This is likely because the name of the game is not specifically a Newfoundland usage; the name of the game appears to be English in origin. You can check out the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the game here. The Century Dictionary has a bit more description on the game, you can read it here. If you think of other games that might be Newfoundland games, drop us a line!
      Thanks for reading,
      Suzanne

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