card sharp / card shark

One of the etymologies that is frequently debated in bars and other public gathering places is that of card shark v. card sharp. The question is which is the original. Both terms mean someone skilled in cheating at cards, but card sharp is the older of the two, appearing in Bret Harte’s 1884 On The Frontier:

We ain’t takin’ this step to make a card sharp out of him.

The term card sharper is even older, dating to George Sala’s 1859 Twice Round The Clock:

German swindlers and card-sharpers.1

Card shark, on the other hand, doesn’t appear until the mid-20th century, when it is glossed in the Berrey and Van Den Bark’s 1942 American Thesaurus of Slang:

CARDSHARP. Broadsman, card or pasteboard shark, shark, chiseler, Greek, grafter, keener, philosopher, shark, sharper, short-card player, yentzer.2

One might think that card shark was formed by mishearing the older card sharp, but this is not the end of it. Both shark and sharper, without the attending card, go back much further.

Sharper, meaning one who cheats or swindles, dates to 1681 when it appears in Narcissus Luttrell’s A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs:

Many of them sharpers about town.

And from Matthew Prior’s 1709 poem Cupid and Ganymede:

A Sharper, that with Box and Dice
Draws in young Deities to Vice.3

Sharper is likely from the idea that one must have keen or sharp wits to make a living in this fashion.

Shark, used in the same sense, is even older, appearing in Ben Jonson’s 1599 The Comicall Satyre of Every Man Out of His Humor:

Shift. A Thredbare Sharke. One that neuer was Soldior, yet liues vpon lendings. His profession is skeldring and odling, his Banke Poules, and his Ware-house Pict-hatch.

This slang-filled quotation needs some translation. Skeldring means begging or swindling. Odling is a rare word that probably means the same thing. The reference to Poules is a bit cryptic, but may refer to the cathedral of Saint Paul’s in London—not, given the date, the familiar Christopher Wren church, but its predecessor. In the 16th century the cathedral was continually looted, thus the facetious reference to it being his “bank.” Pict-hatch was a notorious red-light district in London.

Note that this is not the same word as the name of the fish, which has a different etymology. This shark is of uncertain origin, but probably is a borrowing of the German schurke, which had the meaning of a cheat or swindler in the 16th century.4

So both sharp and shark have long histories of being used in the sense of cheating and swindling. While the exact form card sharp is older, it cannot by any stretch of the imagination be construed as the true or original form.

1Oxford English Dictionary, card, n.2, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 2 Jan 2009 <>.

2Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark, American Thesaurus of Slang (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1942), 699.

3OED2, sharper1, <>.

4OED2, shark, n.2, <>.

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