Meanings: “Bluff”

March 8, 2012

The word “bluff” has two meanings, one refers a landscape feature, the other (noun or verb) refers to a tactic in a poker game or a contest of wills. Though both are from Dutch words, they appear to have different origins; there is no dead metaphor lurking here.  Here’s on the poker meaning:

bluff (v.) Look up bluff at
1839, Amer.Eng., poker term, perhaps from Du. bluffen “to brag, boast,” or verbluffen “to baffle, mislead.” An identical word meant “blindfold, hoodwink” in 1670s, but the sense evolution and connection are unclear; OED calls it “one of the numerous cant terms … which arose between the Restoration and the reign of Queen Anne.” Extended or figurative sense by 1854. Related: Bluffed; bluffing. As a noun, by 1844 as an alternative name for poker; as “an act of bluffing” by 1864.

All this is on my mind because of commentary around President Obama’s saying “as President, I don’t bluff” in regard to the mounting crisis over Iran’s nuclear capabilities.  The blog Language Log has a running field day with the oft-repeated and foolish claim that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow or that some language has no word for x.  But today, Language Log features a commentary by Haider Ala Hamoudi about whether Arabic has a word for “bluff” in the poker sense.  He’s reflecting on various translations in Arabic news stories of what Obama said. Hamoudi argues that Arabic doesn’t appear to have a roughly equivalent word for “bluff.”

Hamoudi is a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in Middle Eastern and Islamic law.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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