crap(s) game

Noted in a NYT story on the 4th, the N + N compound crap game ‘game of craps’. I was reminded of the line from Guys and Dolls:

But for the good old reliable Nathan, oh it’s only just a short walk,
To the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New Yawk.

(or New York, if you insist on a standard pronunciation).


Street craps in a studio theatre performance of Guys and Dolls

Now the name of the game is craps (never crap), which is PL in form (apparently having the Z suffix of the PL) but strictly SG syntactically: Craps is / *are a fascinating game. Nevertheless, as N1 in a N + N compound, the word can appear in a formally SG variant, crap — as well as in its formally PL variant: craps game is entirely acceptable.

This variation, between formally SG and formally PL in N1, is well-known (under the heading “plurals in compounds”, the name echoing the standard assumption that N1 should be formally SG) but is much more widespread than people have been inclined to think. Crap game alongside craps game is just another example among many — but it turns out to fall in with a whole set of examples, involving game names that are formally PL.

A side issue is the origin of the name craps, which is very much unclear. The OED has one speculation (so labeled) on the matter, and the Wikipedia article on the game has another (a plausible story, taken from a 1938 popular history of gambling in America, that might be sheer invention).

crap(s) game. I note first that both variants are well attested. In a Google search yesterday, engineered so as to reduce the (very high) raw hit numbers to eliminate (most of) the repeated hits, I found 180 hits for the formally PL craps game, but a more impressive 330 for the formally SG crap game. The formally SG variant is also the right one for the Guys and Dolls song, but occasionally people “correct” it to craps game.

(Correctness is a vexed issue here. Standard views on N + N compounds call for a formally SG N1, but faithfulness to the game’s name would require a formally PL one.)

OED2’s first cite for the name of the game has craps:

1843   J. H. Green ExposureArts & Miseries Gambling 88   The game of a game lately introduced into New Orleans, and is fully equal to faro in its..ruinous effects.

But there’s also a fairly early cite of crap in this sense:

1891 There is a sort of gambling game, called crap, or ‘shooting crap’, much played by newsboys, bootblacks and negroes.

As far as I can tell, this usage has vanished. But crap for the game as N1 of a compound appears fairly early and continues to the present:

crap-shooting from 1885
crap-game / crap game from 1890
crap-shooter from 1895
crap-table from 1902

Plurals in compounds. There’s now a “Compounds: plurals” Page on this blog, with links to LLog and AZBlog postings on the subject.  A 12/5/10 posting on this blog comes with a survey of some earlier literature: abstracts committee and other cases that might involve avoidance of ambiguity; cases where N1 is an irregular plural (mice-eater or mouse-eater); cases where N1 is name of a sports team (Yankees fan or Yankee fan); and a large collection of other cases where N1 is plural presumably to mirror the semantics (Movies Update as an alternative to Movie Update). That posting and a number of others on this blog expand this final category enormously; when N1 is C (count), plural N1 looks to be the wave of the future. The 12/5/10 posting concludes:

though I’ve followed the literature in talking about N+N compounds like job market as having a singular first element, I’m inclined to say that the first element in such cases is not actually a singular form, but is an unmarked N stem (which of course is phonologically identical to the singular form). This is true whether the first N is mass or count; a count N as modifier is usually interpreted semantically as plural (as in job market).

Back to crap(s) game. The name of the game, craps, is formally plural, with phonological content that consists of the stem for the noun, /kræp/, followed by the plural Z (here in its variant /s/). So crap game follows the pattern of job market, with the first N (craps) represented by its stem. However, job is C, so its stem is phonologically identical to its SG, while craps is M, and so SG already; the motivation for jobs market is semantic transparency, but the motivation for craps game is faithfulness to the phonological form of the lexical item. Different motivations, but a similar consequence: alternative versions of a compound.

It’s not just craps, however. It’s just like a number of other game names.

Names of games are M, hence SG syntactically. Bingo is / *are boring. *Two bingos.

Most game names are “SG in form”, lacking the Z suffix; their phonology is the phonology of their stem, period: soccer, bingo, basketball, chess, bridge, poker, pool.

But some game names are “PL in form”, having the Z suffix — that is, their phonology is the phonology of their stem plus Z: checkers, horseshoes, quoits, jacks, billiards, dominos.

As N1 in a compound, these nouns are sometimes formally PL, sometimes formally SG (that is, with the phonology of their stem): billiard(s) parlor, horseshoe(s) court, checker(s) set (all attested). This is the pattern that craps fits into, very nicely.

When a formally PL game name can be represented as N1 by its stem rather than by its full phonology is subject to a lot of variation, depending on the particular N1 and the particular N2 it’s combined with, in ways that I don’t begin to understand.

I can point out parallel variation with the names of diseases — also M, but some formally PL — as in measle(s) outbreak / vaccine / etc.

The game craps. On to details of the game. From Wikipedia:

Craps is a dice game in which the players make wagers on the outcome of the roll, or a series of rolls, of a pair of dice. Players may wager money against each other (playing “street craps”, also known as “shooting dice” or “rolling dice”) or a bank (playing “casino craps”, also known as “table craps”, or often just “craps”). Because it requires little equipment, “street craps” can be played in informal settings.


Shooting craps on the street

… Craps developed from a simplification of the early English game of “hazard”. Its origins are complex and may date to the Crusades, later being influenced by French gamblers. What was to become the modern American version of the game was brought to New Orleans by Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, a gambler and politician descended from wealthy colonial Louisiana landowners. [Source: Tyler Bridges, Bad Bet in the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and The Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards. Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2001)] … The game, first known as crapaud (a French word meaning “toad” in reference to the original style of play by people crouched over a floor or sidewalk), reportedly owes its modern popularity to street craps. [Source: Sucker’s progress; an informal history of gambling in America from the colonies to Canfield. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. (1938) [by Herbert Asbury; reprinted 2003]]

Here we have the (genuine) French connection, which Asbury apparently relied on to construct a tale about the origin of craps — finding a French word similar to craps that could serve as the basis of a vivid origin story. But the very vividness of the story works against it; it smells of etymythology. I haven’t checked out Asbury’s book (it’s in the mail), but suspect that there’s no documentary evidence in favor of it.

[Addition 11/12/15. The Asbury book has now arrived, and I see that the ‘toad’ theory of the origins of the game’s name comes not from him but from someone editing the Wikipedia entry. On p. 42, Asbury says “Craps, originally spelled Creps, is simply a French corruption of the English Crabs” and cites French sources for the idea. Then on p. 45, he cites a 1933 source that when Hazard was introduced into New Orleans, “the Americans, to whom a Creole or a Frenchman was Johnny Crapaud, called the game Crapauds, then Crapo, and finally Craps” — and labels the idea “unsound for several reasons”. So Asbury was in no way responsible for the ‘toad’ (or ‘frog’) idea.]

Then on hazard, again from Wikipedia:

Hazard is an early English game played with two dice; it was mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the 14th century.

Despite its complicated rules, hazard was very popular in the 17th and 18th centuries and was often played for money. At Crockford’s Club in London, hazard was especially popular. In the 19th century, the game craps developed from hazard through a simplification of the rules. Craps is now very popular in North America but neither game remains popular amongst the rest of the world.

The etymological speculation in Oxford sources relies on the connection to hazard:

From NOAD2:

ORIGIN early 19th cent.: perhaps from crab1 [the crustacean] or crab’s eyes, denoting the lowest throw (two ones) at dice [more commonly known as snake eyes].

From OED2:

of obscure origin, but compare crabspl. slang. The lowest throw at hazard, two aces. to come off, turn out crabs: to turn out a failure or disappointment.

This is a good deal firmer than the story about toads throwing dice, wonderful though that image is. Its weakness is that hazard was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the name craps doesn’t seem to have surfaced until the mid-19th century. On the other hand, the OED2 citations were collected a long time ago; further data collection might fill in the gaps.

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