Card Denominations

[YY] “I’ve always wondered,… why do some people call the Jack a Knave?” Yuri the Young Gun mentioned to no one in particular between hands.

[VV] Vince the Veteran, always eager to show off his trivia knowledge, jumped in with the answer, “It’s actually the other way around. The playing card was originally the Knave, meaning a servant of the King and Queen. But because the King was already marked with a ‘K’, the Knave was stuck with the confusing and ugly ‘Kn’.”

[VV] “In 1864, an English card designer dove into his new Roget’s Thesaurus1 and solved the problem by substituting the 16th-century synonym ‘Jack’, so he could use the letter ‘J’ instead.”2

[NN] Nate the Natural, an expert at practically every game or sport you know, added, “A similar problem occurred in chess, but writers solved it in a different way. The royal game also used ‘K’ for the King and usually used ‘Kt’ for the Knight until around World War II. Thankfully, they didn’t try to get everyone to start calling the equine a Horse just so they could use an ‘H’ and instead chose ‘N’ for ‘Knight’, which works well because of the silent ‘K’. That Englishman could have done the same thing!”

[YY] “Two practical solutions to the same problem. What about Ace, Deuce, Trey instead of One, Two, Three, and why is the Ace high anyway?”

[VV] “Whoa, slow down… All the English numbers from one to ten come from Latin, transformed across multiple languages in a historical game of Telephone.3 Unus (1), duo (2), tres (3), quattuor (4), quinque (5), sex (6), septem (7), octo (8), novem (9), and decem (10). You recognize those last few from the last four months of the year, which were originally the seventh through tenth months.4 ‘Ace’ comes from a different Latin word as, meaning ‘unit’, and was originally the dice term for the single-pipped side. The playing card Ace was indeed originally a low card, but during the late 18th century those crazy Frenchmen decided to carry their revolution over to the card deck, overthrew the King, and promoted the Ace from the worst card to the best.”5

[VV] “‘Deuce’ and ‘two’ both came from duo, just through different routes. Likewise, ‘Trey’ and ‘three’ from tres“.

[TT] “Ace, King, Queen, Jack, and Ten / Royalty leads again / Nine, Eight, Seven, and Six / Middle cards in the mix / Five, Four, Trey (Three), Deuce (Two) / Low cards last, and we’re through”, Tyrone the Telephone contributed as the next hand started.


  1. Not true, AFAIK. The famous thesaurus did debut just a dozen years earlier though.
  2. Source, “Jack (playing card)” article at Wikipedia. The Jack was first used in All Fours, a predecessor of Auction Pitch.
  3. In the party game Telephone, a phrase or sentence is whispered from one person to another, who in turn whispers it to the next person. After a dozen or more iterations, what comes out is usually unrecognizable from the initial statement.
  4. January and February were inserted in 713 B.C. by the Roman king Numa. In 44 B.C., Augustus Caesar renamed the original fifth month Quintilis to honor Julius Caesar (Iulius = July) and took the anachronistic Sextilis for himself (Augustus = August).
  5. If you think this was a unusual thing to do, in the Asian card games Big Two and Daihinmin, the Two has been promoted to the top of the heap, so the order of denominations is 2, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3! (Among my friends we call the latter game “Revolution”, but that coincidence refers to the game’s rules, not the two being high, although now that I think about it, maybe there’s no coincidence.)

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