Q&A: Where does “bingo” come from?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, bingo was its name-oh…

Q: Hey AWC, my friend just got a rescue pup and named him ‘Bingo’.

A: That’s cute.

Q: Yeah. And then yesterday I visited my nan at her retirement village and we went and played bingo. We won $15 and found out all the gossip about Cynthia and Albert.

A: That sounds like fun. This seems to be going somewhere, are we right?

Q: Bingo! You are right. My question this week is where the word “bingo” came from. Is the story as fun as the word sounds?

A: Haha, good question. The Macquarie Dictionary lists it as “an exclamation indicating success”. It can also be an interjection to indicate suddenness of an event. For example, “He took a swing… and bingo! He was on the floor”. But the “success” meaning is more common.

Q: Any other meanings?

A: Well, as you’ve described, it can also be that numbers game. And even in Scrabble, if you make a word using all seven of your tiles, it’s often called a “bingo”.

Q: And it’s a good name for a dog.

A: Sure. In fact, that’s one of the earliest appearances of the word – in a late 18th century children’s song that spells out the name of the farmer’s dog.

Q: “And BINGO was his name-oh. B-I-N-G-O….”

A: That’s the one. It would later become a drinking game. And speaking of drinking, probably the earliest utterance of “bingo” was as a term for brandy in the late 17th century. “Stingo and bingo” meant “strong ale and brandy”. Stingo was even spelled out in that earlier children’s song as the second verse.

Q: So what about the modern usage?

A: According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, we’ve had “bingo” in our vernacular since 1903. It was likely an echoic word, an interjection that mimicked the ringing sound “bing”. Instead of a bell going off, you’d say it as “bingo”.

Q: Makes sense. Much like saying “bah-bow” when someone gets something wrong!

A: Yes, true. Although that hasn’t yet made it to any dictionaries. 

Q: Okay, so what about the numbers game – when did that turn up?

A: The original game dates back to the 1530s Italian game, Il Gioco del Lotto d'Italia – the grandfather of modern lotteries and origin of the word “lotto”. 

Q: So how did we go from lotto to bingo?

A: Lotto style games became popular throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th century, eventually jumping across to the US. But it wasn’t until early 1920s Pittsburgh when a man named Hugh Ward created a card game at carnivals.

Q: Bingo!

A: Actually, no. By all accounts, this version became popular along the US east coast with the name “Beano”.

Q: Beano?

A: Beano. According to the Museum of Play, it was actually a travelling toy salesman named Edwin Lowe who in 1929 stumbled upon the carnival game during a visit to Atlanta and saw mass marketing potential.

Q: Bingo!

A: Well, exactly. One story goes that he was later testing the game with his New York friends and one woman got so excited about filling her board that she stuttered the name as “b-b-b-ingo!”. Her elation and natural outburst prompted Lowe to change the name. It’s a cool story, but all the witnesses are dead, so we’ll never know how true it is.

Q: Oh my, all the witnesses are DEAD? What happened?

A: Well, they were adults, and it was almost 100 years ago. That’s what happened.

Q: Oh, yes, of course. So, I also suppose by then “bingo” was already being used to indicate success, yeah?

A: That’s right, albeit just as slang. It did however make sense as the catch cry of winning at his new game. 

Q: It’s odd, I always assumed the game was invented in Britain.

A: You’re not entirely wrong. A variation of bingo can indeed be traced back to British troops in World War I – known as “housey-housey” by the army and “tombola” by the navy. Even after the rise in popularity of “bingo”, the name “housey-housey” persisted as an alternative form of the game in the UK (eventually becoming synonymous). Meanwhile here in Australia and New Zealand we went with “housie”. In these alternatives, you called out “HOUSE!” if you filled the board.

Q: Are these names still used today?

A: You occasionally see them, but “bingo” has taken over as the general term for this kind of game.

Q: Any other fun facts?

A: Well, yes. You may have heard of a similar game called “Keno” – well its name comes from “quini” in Latin – relating to the number five. And remember Edwin Lowe? Well, he went on to also invent the dice game “Yahtzee” in 1956 before moving to Vegas and blowing it all on a resort that ironically included everything except a casino.

Q: So to recap, “bingo” started out as a slang exclamation of success but became popularised by a lottery game thanks to an overexcited player and a shrewd marketer?

A: Bingo!


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