Was that uncle who wiped the floor with you in a card game over the holidays a cardsharp or a card shark?
Western novels, movies, and television shows regularly contain scenes of men in saloons playing cards—and cheating at cards. Sometimes a cheater is called a "card sharp" and other times a "card shark." Which one is correct?
"The Ox-Bow Incident," published in 1940, is a western novel set in the year 1885. The story opens with Art Croft and Gil Carter riding into the fictional town of Bridger’s Wells, Nevada. They enter a saloon and almost everything seems normal with men drinking and playing cards, but something doesn’t seem quite right. For one thing, Art is surprised he doesn’t hear anyone being called a "card sharp" (p. 19), which is what he called people who cheated, or were suspected of cheating, at cards.
A 1960s western television show called "The Rifleman" is also set in the mid-1880s. In one episode of a 1960s western television show called "The Rifleman," which is also set in the mid-1880s, Lucas McCain (played by Chuck Connors) walks into a saloon in fictional North Fork, New Mexico, and sees his friend Lariat Jones (played by Richard Anderson) in a card game. From the camera angle, viewers see his opponent pull an ace of spades from inside his jacket to complete a royal flush. Then, Jones lays down four of a kind in aces, which includes an ace of spades. Since there’s only one ace of spades in a deck, one of them cheated and viewers know who it was. McCain says, "We shoot card sharks in this part of the country, mister," and the cheater runs out.
In those two instances, why were two different words—"sharp" and "shark"—used to refer to the same thing: a cheater?
“Cardsharp” is often defined as someone who cheats at card games. The words “cardsharper” or “cardsharping” have the same, or similar, meaning, as does the word “sharper.” However, the word “sharp” in some contexts, can be a compliment and a positive description of something or someone.
“Card shark” can refer to a person who is good at playing cards without cheating or a person who cheats at cards. However, the word “sharker” refers to someone who cheats or is dishonest, but the word “shark” can have either a positive or negative connotation depending on the context.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words "cardsharp," "card-sharper," and "card-sharping" date as far back as the 1840s and refer to someone who cheats at cards. The word "card shark" first appeared a few decades later, in the 1870s, and referred either to a person skilled at card games or a person who cheated at cards. However, the word "sharker" dates as far back as the late 1500s and referred to a person who lived by cheating or being dishonest. The term "sharper" meant the same thing as "sharker" and has been dated to the later 1600s.
As time has gone on, "card shark" has been used more often in its positive sense to refer to someone who is skilled at cards. A game show that began in the 1970s called “Card Sharks” has contestants wager money and try to correctly guess cards. People don't win by cheating, but by skillfully playing the game. In that context, being a shark is a good thing. But consider what happens if we replace the word “card” with "loan." A “loan shark” is known for generally operating outside the laws that regulate money lending to take advantage of people and make a profit. In that regard, being a "shark" is a bad thing. Now think about the popular television show “Shark Tank” where the sharks are the investors bidding to fund entrepreneurial ventures for a return on their investment. It often gets competitive, but there’s nothing unlawful. In that scenario a "shark" is not bad.
Looking back at the history and use of those words reveals that "cardsharp" has referred to someone who cheats, but a "card shark" can be either someone who cheats at cards or who is skilled at cards and doesn’t cheat.
Because "cardsharp" dates to an earlier usage than "card shark" and both sound similar and can have the same meaning, some have proposed that the newer phrase is an eggcorn. An eggcorn is a word that comes about when someone mishears how a word is supposed to be pronounced. However, the etymologies of "card sharp" and "card shark" and their related words do not support that claim.
Although in common use there is significant overlap between the two words, both the AP Stylebook and Garner's Modern English Usage recommend using "cardsharp" when you're talking about a cheater and "card shark" when you're talking about a skilled player. And of course, when you're reading or listening, take the context into account to help figure out the meaning. Finally, note that "cardsharp" is often written as one word, especially in American English and especially in modern times, and "card shark" is always written as two words.
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