Anything Obscure & Eclectic
Detail of C.M. Coolidge's "A Friend in Need," 1903.

Blue Chip

1. Originating in the United States, a high-value counter or token used in poker–indeed, in the game’s early days, and still when the stack is at its most basic, the highest value.

An early off-hand reference–in Biff Hall’s 1890 book The Turnover Club: Tales told at the meetings of the Turnover club, about actors and actresses–finds blue chips the jackpot of a game of faro. (The “old girl” of the poem is its title, “The Queen of Hearts,” effectively Lady Luck.)

And then they say that cards are evil’s marrow
And card-players sometimes commit a sin;
But you, old girl–yes, you, when turned to faro,
You sometimes caused ‘a stack of blues’ to win.

The ubiquitous blue chips.By 1920, when Hopalong Cassidy and his dusty companion Johnny Nelson could be found in the pages of pulp novels trading stacks of blue chips between each other–in a crowded saloon, one can imagine, or beside the campfire–the term was common across literary Westerns.

It would be nearly another ten years before blue chip appeared in one of its contemporary analogues, as a sound or reliable investment. Writing just six days after Black Thursday, the start of the Great Depression, the Baltimore Sun reported that “Agriculture still has too much to reclaim to become a ‘blue chip’ in the near future.” The use of quotes around the term perhaps suggests that the Sun, in conceding “blue chip” was common enough to achieve the point, still squirmed at coronating it in print. Three years later, the same newspaper hedged even further, calling them the “so-called ‘blue chips.'” As late as 1954, blue chip hadn’t lost its flags in some sources, as in the Economist, “Tobacco equities seem rather more vulnerable than other industrial ‘blue chips.'” By then sports reporters, ever the defiant ones, had picked up the mantle to refer to prized college recruits; a 1951 Los Angeles Times article noted with decisive finality the seemingly obvious sentiment, “The pressure from alumni on blue chip athletes is terrific all over the country.”

Given Shaquille O’Neal’s very recent retirement, let’s just say that blue chip has settled, comfortably if not always gracefully, into the vernacular.

Incidentally, the book The Turnover Club is also useful in defining the word “Hootchy-kootchy,” meaning a suggestive dance but first the nickname of 1890s minstrel entertainer Billy Rice, who reportedly said the words in every act. To be sure, Rice was not a faultless individual; “‘Hoochy-Coochy’ Rice, the minstrel man…entered Hoyt’s room with a dark lantern and a jimmy,” reports writer Hall, “and stole a new song which the author had just written.” How the term came to mean a lewd or lascivious gyration of the hips, first used somewhere in the region of that definition in an 1895 song set during Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, is a topic for another entry.

And that, ladies and gents, is how you connect a sensible, long-term stock investment with a disreputable 19th-century entertainer.

This entry was published on 3 June 2011 at 5:35 pm and is filed under B. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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