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 etymology.com on the poker meaning:
- bluff (v.)
- 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.