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Morgan’s Orchard

Q From Lynn Humfress-Trute, Canada: When my father and I play cribbage, he often uses the expression Morgan’s Orchard, to mean he has no score. Could you tell me the origin of this expression, please?

A This one baffled me completely. I couldn’t find any reference to it anywhere, other than in a message that Ed Matthews had sent me back in 2004. He said that his grandfather used it, also when playing crib, to mean a hand containing two pairs, which he guessed was a pun on two pear trees, or a small orchard.

An appeal to subscribers brought many replies, which confirmed its meaning, though casting no light on its origin whatsoever. It seems that Ms Humfress-Trute’s father had misunderstood it, since everyone who commented agreed with Mr Matthews’ grandfather, that it meant a hand holding two pairs of cards for a score of four points.

Johnnie Johnson commented, “I was taught to play the game by my maternal grandfather during the 1950s. It was then a very popular game in the working men’s clubs of Northamptonshire (and no doubt elsewhere also). He used the term Morgan’s Orchard to mean a hand with two pairs. Sometimes he would use the term apples and pairs for the same hand. To indicate a non-scoring hand he would say nineteen, which by a fluke in cards and mathematics is a score impossible to achieve in Cribbage.” Many others also mentioned nineteen in this sense.

John Murphy e-mailed: “I have played cribbage for nearly 60 years in England, Wales, Scotland, Malaysia and various parts of the Middle East. The term Morgan’s orchard has been widely understood to mean a score of four from two pairs. My grandfather told me (so long ago!) that the phrase was a pun on two pears, for a small orchard, Morgan being the stereotypical Welshman of the time. From his recollection the phrase was commonly used by soldiers in the Great War.”

Several subscribers pointed to a posting on an online discussion forum in which it was asserted that the eponymous Morgan owned orchards in Kent which supplied pears and apples to London, or alternatively that he operated the barges in which they were shipped up the Thames. In the absence of confirming evidence, we have to assume that this is a popular etymology. The real origin seems to be undiscoverable.

Cribbage is full of mildly mysterious terms. John Murphy explained some others: “Two for his heels is scored for turning up a Jack (knave) after the cut. One for his nob is scored for holding the Jack of the same suit as the turned-up card.” There’s also peg out for ending the game, meaning that your marker peg has reach the end of the scoring board, which was once a common colloquial term for dying.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 25 Nov. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 25 November 2006.