No social or cultural history of modern Britain would be Complete without a mention of Bingo. It is the popular game of the people: one that endures, that has transcended mere leisure and gambling to become a mindset, nay, religion in its own right. What other game has made such rich contributions to the English language? ‘Legs Eleven!” Two Fat Ladies!’ – phrases so familiar to us that we don’t even give them a second thought. They’re part of the furniture of the nation. But where did the bingo caller’s phrases originate? Many date back to the days of the music hall, and have survived through the decades even though their original meanings have fallen out of common usage. Military references and slang feature heavily, as do quips relating to celebrities, television, films and music. And the language has continued to evolve over time, embracing modern cultural and political references.
Although it’s now played online by over 100 million people worldwide, the true spirit of bingo hasn’t been abandoned – players are still urged to cast their ‘eyes down’. But we’re not just looking at bingo on our electronic devices: there are indications that the traditional ‘bingo night’ is enjoying a renaissance, finding fans amongst the younger generation, keen to feel the frisson of anticipation for that final number that makes ‘HOUSE!’
This book isn’t a comprehensive guide to the bingo caller’s lexicon – indeed, many of the numbers have the most prosaic of descriptors (`two dozen’ doesn’t require a great imaginative leap). It’s first and foremost a visual interpretation of those eccentric phrases – and it’s an affectionate homage to a generation for whom bingo night was and always would be the best night of the week.
KELLY’S EYE NUMBER ONE.
As well as being one of the nation’s most popular pastimes, Bingo was the only game allowed by the British army, so many of the better-known number nicknames were invented by bored and embattled soldiers.
Why Kelly’s Eye? Many believe it refers to infamous Aussie rebel folk hero, Ned Kelly. Horse thief, bank robber and bare-knuckle fighter, Ned was perhaps most notorious for his unique iron armour, supposedly inspired by a visit to Melbourne museum. His helmet – Ned’s famous tin hat – was a quarter of an inch thick and had just a narrow slit for his eyes, a fearful sight for his victims. Finally captured and hanged for murder in 1880, Ned was apparently buried with both eyes intact so, despite the nickname, it was very much a case of eyes down .. .
ONE LITTLE DUCK NUMBER TWO.
This call is based simply on the similarity between the shape of the number and that of a familiar quacking bird.
Donald and Daffy may be the biggest ducks in the world but which is the littlest? Controversially, that honour belongs to the African Pygmy Goose. Technically a ‘perching duck’, its name comes from its stubby, goose-like bill and, at just twelve inches from the tip to tail, this little chap is the very smallest of the world’s waterfowl. When it comes to world records, he’s taken to it like one little duck to water.
CUP OF TEA NUMBER THREE.
Great British institutions that they are (alongside queuing and moaning about the weather), bingo and a cuppa go together like fish and chips and Ant and Dec.
GB’s proud tea-drinking tradition stretches back to the mid-seventeenth century when, curiously, it first appeared in the coffee houses of London. It rapidly gained popularity in all echelons of society, partly due to an advertising campaign enthusiastically claiming its ability to make the body ‘active and lusty’, and preserve ‘perfect health until extreme old age’. Over the years it has provided the perfect accompaniment to cucumber sandwiches in the gardens of Buckingham Palace and no self-respecting 1970s builder would have been seen without a cup of PG Tips or Ty-Phoo to wet his wolf whistle.
KNOCK AT THE DOOR NUMBER FOUR.
MAN ALIVE NUMBER FIVE.
TOM MIX NUMBER SIX.
Scram, Clint Eastwood. Scoot, Roy Rogers. Skedaddle, John Wayne … This town ain’t big enough for the lot of us. Get on your horses and make way for the rootin’-est, tootin’-est son of a gun to fill a ten-gallon hat.
But who is this mysterious stranger, you may ask. None other than the grand-daddy of them all King of the Movie Cowboys himself, Mr Tom Mix. Actor, director and writer Tom paved the way for a century of westerns, starring in almost 300 silent films and talkies. A friend of the great Wyatt Earp, he’s appeared on a postage stamp, has a star on the walk of fame and has even been played by Bruce Willis. And all in the saddle of the mighty stallion with the best horse name in showbiz – not Trigger, not Silver but…Tony.
LUCKY FOR SOME NUMBER SEVEN.
The number seven has been a symbol of good luck since ancient civilisations picked out what they believed to be the only seven planets in the night sky – the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. Pythagoras declared seven the perfect number, there were seven Roman and Egyptian gods, seven Wonders of the World and the seventh son of a seventh son was said to have mystical powers – compelling evidence of the number’s association with success and good fortune. Unless you happen to break a mirror, of course …
GOLDEN GATE NUMBER EIGHT.
Close it behind you.
DOCTOR’S ORDERS NUMBER NINE.
Number nine was a laxative pill issued by doctors in the army and navy. Its name supposedly came from the latest time a patient could make an appointment, 9 p.m. However, some claim the poor soldiers were unaware of the medicine’s properties and it was in fact a secret punishment for malingerers. An alternative explanation suggests that an army medical officer was issued with a small black tin consisting of fourteen bottles of various pills and tablets, the most popular being a large black one – number nine. If this ran out, the medic would prescribe a number four and a number five or even three number threes.
Only one thing is certain – alternative facts are not a new phenomenon.
BIG FAT HEN NUMBER TEN.
From the nursery rhyme ‘one, two, buckle my shoe’.
Alternatively, the domicile of the incumbent British Prime Minister (‘Maggie’s Den, Tony’s Den…’).
Two ones = a pair of legs.
MONKEY’S COUSIN NUMBER TWELVE.
Another rhyming call, this one has its origins in one of the most important books ever written. The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection was Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking treatise on evolution. His outlandish theories concerning natural selection were largely met with ridicule and he was openly mocked and depicted as an ape in Victorian newspapers and magazines.
While his views would eventually become accepted in the scientific community, Darwin was an easy figure to poke fun at – he was a recluse who had dined on armadillo, puma and owl (which he described as indescribable!) and, bizarrely, for a man so intrinsically linked with the subject of genetics, married his own first cousin.
BAKER’S DOZEN NUMBER THIRTEEN.
Also known as ‘Unlucky for some’ (for all you triskaidekaphobes out there), the term ‘baker’s dozen’ has its origins, appropriately, in the 13th century. The Assize of Bread and Ale law was brought in to regulate the price, weight and quality of bread and beer produced in English towns and villages. Keen to avoid harsh punishments for short-changing customers, bakers added extra rolls to their batches. According to Hotten’s Slang Dictionary of1864 (the Urban Dictionary of its day) a baker’s dozen ‘consists of 13 or 14; the surplus number, called the inbread, being thrown in for fear of incurring the penalty for short weight.’ So in this case, the number 13 was good news for all except the medieval gluten-intolerant.
VALENTINE’S DAY NUMBER FOURTEEN.
Originally a feast day for St Valentine, this day flourished during Chaucer’s times and in the 18th century the 14th of February became a day on which lovers expressed their feelings for each other by presenting hand-picked flowers, confectionery and handwritten cards – a tradition that continues to this day, although the flowers are more likely to have been picked from a bucket outside the local 24-hour garage and the heartfelt message on your card digitally reproduced by a popular online printing company.
YOUNG AND KEEN NUMBER FIFTEEN.
As apposed to old and cynical.
NEVER BEEN KISSED NUMBER SIXTEEN.
`Sweet Sixteen and Never Been Kissed’ sang The Blue Mountaineers back in 1932. Although this popular song starts off with ‘Two red lips I can’t resist’, its romantic mood begins to fade in the second verse with the lines ‘She’s rolling her eyes’ and ‘she will tell the sweetest of lies’, and in the third, this tale of teenage love is revealed to be far from pure: ‘I’ll be perfectly frank. She’s worth millions, maybe billions, her dad owns a bank.’
As well as this being the age of consent, a sixteen-year-old may also drive a moped, pilot a glider, buy a lottery ticket and join a trade union – any one of which might make for a more romantic song.
DANCING QUEEN NUMBER SEVENTEEN.
Decades before a certain meatball-serving flatpack leviathan robbed the world of its Sunday afternoons, the most famous four-letter word to come out of Sweden was ABBA.
The Eurovision-winning Scandinavian supergroup’s defining moment was their 1976 disco ditty ‘Dancing Queen’ featuring the line ‘Young and sweet, only seventeen’ (teenagers were a different species in those days). Originally titled the less-than-inspiring ‘Boogaloo’ and rumoured to have been written for the new young Swedish queen Silvia, it was their only American number 1 and has been a wedding reception toe-tapper ever since.
COMING OF AGE NUMBER EIGHTEEN.
At eighteen you can sue or be sued,
Have your body tattooed,
Ride that small motorbike,
That you yearn,
You can light up the sky,
With rockers you buy,
But once left,
You can never return.
GOODBYE-TEENS NUMBER NINETEEN.
This number represents a farewell to the teenage years, the bridge between childhood and adulthood – a time for first loves, first drinks and first spots. Although for some teen overachievers they were rather more…
Alexander the Great founded his first colony at just sixteen. Bobby Fischer became a chess grand master a year younger. Fifteen was also the age Annie (Get Your Gun) Oakley won a sharpshooting championship and Louis Braille invented a system ()Treading for the blind still used today. And at nineteen, Joan of Arc became a Saint and in 2014 the inspirational Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize.
How’s that Geography GCSE looking now…?
ONE SCORE NUMBER TWENTY.
Why is twenty known as a score?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, as long ago as the year 1100, shepherds would keep a score of heir sheep by marking every twentieth animal with a notch on a wooden stick (sadly this system fell into disuse as too many shepherds fell asleep before making the first mark). The word score, originally from the Norse skor, then became the name of a 20-pound measure used to weigh pigs and oxen.
Most commonly, it has been used to describe a person’s lifespan, as in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth when one old man recounts his memories amounting to ‘threescore and ten’ years.
KEY OF THE DOOR NUMBER TWENTY-ONE.
`21 today, 21 today, I’ve got the key of the door, never been 21 before!’
So have sung many a young lady and gentleman over the years because, up until 1970, that was the age you were legally considered an adult and would be presented with your own house key for the very first time, allowing you to come and go as you wished.
TWO LITTLE DUCKS NUMBER TWENTY TWO.
This pair of indigenous waterfowls make up One of the game’s most famous calls, usually met with a resounding response of ‘Quack! Quack!’ It may be a myth that ducks’ quacks don’t echo in the wild but they certainly do around Britain’s bingo halls!
Perhaps the two most significant members of the species were discovered just a few years ago – a couple of small carved stone ducks were unearthed close to Stonehenge, which, along with a further 5000 even more ancient artefacts, led historians to believe the site was used for public occasions 3000 years before the huge stone circle was erected. Is this conclusive proof that Stonehenge was the world’s first bingo hall?
THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD NUMBER TWENTY THREE.
The use of the opening line from the 23rd Psalm in the Old Testament is an example of the other great religion after bingo – religion. The connection goes further -both take place in church halls and in Bingo, the Lord’s name is regularly taken in vain.
As well as being one of the most quoted sections of the Bible, Psalm 23 features in songs by many of the biggest stars ()frock and pop history. Here’s this week’s Top of the Psalms from ten to one…
10. The Moody Blues
9. Pink Floyd
6. Tupac Shakur
5. Marilyn Manson
3. Kanye West
2. The Grateful Dead
1. The Vicar of Dibley
TWO DOZEN NUMBER TWENTY FOUR.
Coming out of their shells.
DUCK AND DIVE NUMBER FIVE.
Meaning skive or survive, Duck and Dive is a prime example of Cockney rhyming slang, which is responsible for many of Bingo’s most famous calls, as the game was, along with gin, one of the most popular pastimes among turn-of-the-twentieth century working-class Londoners. This ‘secret language’ evolved as a means for less salubrious groups to be able to discuss their nefarious activities under the noses of the local constabulary.
Famous fictional duckers and divers include Only Fools and Horses’ lovable rogue, Del Boy Trotter and Oliver Twist’s chirpy pickpocket, the Artful Dodger, who probably didn’t have to do too much ducking: Dickens described him as ‘altogether as roystering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six.’
PICK AND MIX NUMBER TWENTY SIX.
Sadly no longer a part of the great British high street, the pick and mix was a shoplifter’s paradise where modern-day Artful Dodgers cut their teeth, figuratively and literally, merrily pocketing unguarded pineapple cubes, fizzy cola bottles and strawberry bonbons to their hearts’ desire. Although this pilfering may not have been as petty as you might imagine – the very last bag of Woolworths ‘Pick ‘n’ Mix’ fetched a mouth-watering £14,500 on eBay.
LITTLE DUCK WITH A CRUTCH.
One sunny day, a young backpacker was hiking across a field when she happened on an astonishing sight. Hobblewaddling along near a dilapidated farmhouse was a one-legged duck leaning on a wooden crutch.
`What happened to your poor duck?’ she asked the farmer. ‘That,’ he beamed proudly, ‘Is the most amazing duck in the world!’ How so?’ she asked, intrigued.
`Well,’ said the farmer, ‘Last month the farm caught fire and not only did he call the fire brigade, he dragged my entire family out of the flaming building with his bill.’
`Incredible,’ said the backpacker, wide-eyed. ‘But why has he only got one leg?’
`Well,’ said the farmer, ‘With a, duck as amazing as that, you can hardly eat him all at once!’