Playing Bingo

Bingo Number Names History And Meanings Part 1: Introduction

In her latest piece for Playing Bingo, historian Dr Carolyn Downs takes a look at the history of bingo number calls, their importance and their origins.

Author: Carolyn Downs

Two Fat Ladies, Clickety-Click: Rhyming Bingo Calls & The English Language

If you were to ask a group of people what they know about bingo it is pretty certain that rhyming calls would be one thing that they could all identify as being part of the game. They would probably also be able to remember several of them too, ‘two fat ladies, 88’ or ‘two little ducks’. Except that, as bingo players know very well, rhyming calls have not been part of the commercial game of bingo since the Gaming Board of Great Britain moved to ban them from commercial halls after the Gaming Act of 1968, although they retain a place at some seaside arcades, in charitable games and in working men's and ex-services clubs where the game is played as entertainment.

Why is it then that people who do not play bingo remember the calls? Bingo calls are part of popular culture. They are used in press headlines, as titles for TV shows, on funny birthday cards, in comedy shows, and in fact, in bingo games held in non-commercial settings, where they retain their hold on the game, and in many cases are part of a repartee between caller and players, with a whole raft of traditional responses that are used alongside the calls and add atmosphere to the game.

Social Class And Language

In the early 21st Century class differences are far less noticeable than in the past, although they do still have an impact. It is in the use of our common language that many of the most noticeable indicators of class difference lie, both in accent and in vocabulary. Curiosity about how different people spoke developed through the later 19th and 20th Centuries and efforts were made to collect examples of different dialects and traditional ways of speaking before they died out, while the study of language and dialect became a respectable area for research. This interest in how language worked is seen in George Bernard Shaw’s famous play Pygmalion, which later became the hugely successful musical, My Fair Lady.

Idiomatic Phrases

One of the key features of the type of language identified by researchers as belonging to the working classes was that the use of idiomatic phrases was common. Idiomatic phrases are those which do not mean exactly what they say. Phrases such as ‘turn over a new leaf’ often cause immense confusion to people learning English, as they do not understand the phrase has nothing to do with gardening and everything to do with becoming a better person.

The calls adopted by bingo reflect this aspect of popular styles of speech, using idiomatic phrases and slang and being based upon shared knowledge and understanding, a group culture that outsiders are not familiar with. Researchers also found that the way in which groups of people share a common language, in terms of dialect or idiom, helped strengthen group identity. This seems relevant to bingo, an activity where the players feel a strong sense of identity and loyalty to club and game.

A Working Class Game?

The links between bingo and social class have a long history. The game was the only legal gambling activity allowed in the British Armed Forces (from around 1890) , where it was considered to be particularly the preserve of ‘generations of the British Tommy’; while evidence given by the police in the 1930s noted that the game was mostly played by, ‘women of the poorer sort’. [1] Later studies of the gambling habits of the British came to the same conclusion. The Gaming Board of Great Britain collected data on player profiles from 1969 and consistently found that the majority of bingo players are working-class; with more women than men playing in commercial clubs while more men than women played in ex-services and other CIU clubs.

Twentieth century working class popular culture was in many ways a commercial culture. It had its roots in the music halls and professional sport that developed in the nineteenth century, grew in the cinema, radio and dance halls of the early twentieth century, and came to rest after the Second World War in widespread access to recorded music and television. All of these activities have to some extent spawned a language that is at first particular to that activity but that has often spread into the general vocabulary of the English. ‘Top of the bill’ comes from the music hall, but survives even today to be used in a variety of settings, ‘going to the dogs’ referred to a trip to the local greyhound stadium – most of which are long gone, but the phrase has an idiomatic meaning too, suggesting someone whose life has deteriorated in some way.

Although there was almost no awareness amongst the middle classes of the extent to which bingo was a popular leisure activity amongst the working classes before the Betting and Gaming Act (1960) the one thing that was widely known about the game was that rhyming calls played a part. The rhyming calls used in bingo were primarily there to slow the game down but many of the expressions have come into everyday language. This transfer of language is described in the account taken from an oral history of the soldiers of the First World War, ‘Deaths Men’:

The most complex game tolerated by the authorities was House. Twenty-four cards were issued at two shillings and six pence a time. Each card had three lines with five numbers on. One man handled the cash and cards while the other called out the numbers. Ninety pips were drawn out of a bag and each number had its epithet – Kelly’s eye for one, doctor’s shop for nine, ten and twenty were blind, legs eleven, twenty-two dunky doo, [dinky doo] thirty-three, Gerty Lee; top of the bleeding bungalow, and so on. The game was taken into everyday speech – ‘What time is it?’ ‘Legs eleven’. Men would cover the called numbers with pieces of bread, and the first to cover his lines would shout ‘House’, and won the stake. The first game would be free. [2]

The game needed to be slowed down because in order for it to be seen to be fair there had to be some sort of random number generation. In the forces and in charitable games this was a bag of numbered counters that could be shaken up in between calls and a number pulled out, often by someone assisting the caller in order to guard against suggestions of cheating. In more commercial settings, such as at the seaside or in the illegal but popular cash bingo parlours that operated from the 1930s the calls were equally as important. The Metropolitan Police sent two undercover women police officers to stake out one such bingo parlour in 1939 and they provide a detailed description of how the mechanics of the game worked. In the centre of the open rectangle created by tables at which the players sat was a large box, divided into numbered sections – one to ninety. The assistant had a supply of wooden balls that were handed in turn to each player seated round the rectangle. The player would throw the ball into the box, thus selecting the next number to be called [3]. This was considered far fairer by players than numbers drawn from a bag but was necessarily a slow process. In order to maintain the interest of the players and to accommodate the slow selection of numbers the rhyming calls that are now considered synonymous with bingo were used.

The phrases adopted for the calls are a mirror of popular, mass culture through the twentieth century, with some of the phrases still in use dating back to the era of music hall and others coming from radio, hit songs and television. The range of phrases and terms also encompasses those that relate specifically to the military and naval traditions, as well as to the spread of Hollywood films and popular entertainment and entertainers.

[1] PRO Mepol 3/765.

[2] Denis Winter, Death’s Men – The Soldiers of the Great War, London, 1978, p.154.

[3] PRO Mepol 3/765 Statements of Woman Police Sergeant Stratton and Woman Police Constable Cross.

To cite this article: Carolyn Downs, Bingo Number Names History And Meanings, April 2012, viewed on

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