Q From Thomas Burton, Australia: I have just finished reading Arnold Bennett’s The Card. The meaning of card in this context — a “character” — is so very different from the other meanings of card that I wonder how this meaning came to be.
A A card is certainly a very individual person, one who stands out from the crowd because he is odd or amusing, because of a clever or audacious nature or because he is one of a kind.
Though it doesn’t seem to have any connection with real card, an association does exist, through playing cards. Once that is assumed, a link with the joker might seem obvious, but — surprisingly — this playing card only entered the pack as an American invention around 1870, after card had already appeared.
On the other hand, figurative expressions based on a playing card as a token of action or manoeuvre or a stratagem or gambit have long existed. In modern usage, we have playing the [something] card, to obtain political advantage through raising a particular contentious issue. We might have a card up our sleeves, meaning we have a plan or resource in reserve. In some situation, we might play our best card or our trump card.
A long way back in history, around 1560, the phrase sure card appeared, for some expedient certain to work. Another of similar meaning was sound card. People were often referred to as good cards, meaning that they were reliable or had abilities or qualities that made them effective in some situation.
Arnold Bennett’s sense grew out of these references to individuals as types of card. It’s relatively new — it’s not recorded before Charles Dickens used it in Sketches By Boz in 1836: “Mr. Thomas Potter whose great aim it was to be considered as a ‘knowing card’”. He used it again in Bleak House in 1852: “Such an old card has this; so deep, so sly, and secret.”
By the time that Arnold Bennett used it in his story of the Five Towns, in 1911, it was well-established as a colloquial term. It has dropped away markedly since, though it’s still around:
He’s a card, isn’t he, that Phil Tufnell? Bit lairy, bit of a geezer, a whiff of the bad egg about him. But bright with it.
Independent on Sunday, 13 Nov. 2005. Lairy: flashy; vulgar; socially unacceptable.