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Pronounced /ˈmɔːnɪvl/Help with pronunciation

A mournival beats a gleek. If we were playing poker, you might well comment equivalently that four of a kind beats three.

We are, indeed, in the realm of card games, though gleek, which takes its name from the threesome group in it, is one you have probably never heard of. People are first recorded playing it in England under that name early in the 1530s, though Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was reportedly fond of it in her youth, which would take it back to the beginning of the century or perhaps a little earlier. In fact, it’s almost certainly the same game as the earlier French glic.

It was a gambling game for three players, often called halfpenny gleek, penny gleek or twopenny gleek, whose names refer to the monetary value of each point scored, not the total bet. An English penny was worth a lot at the time, so losing could be expensive — in 1646, the poet and writer John Hall warned that “gleeke requires a vigilant memory and a long purse”. Samuel Pepys recorded in his Diary in February 1662, “We played at gleeke, and I won 9s. 6d. clear, the most that ever I won in my life. I pray God it may not tempt me to play again.”

One phase of the game involved declaring any gleeks or mournivals of aces or court cards that you had in your hand, which gained money from each opponent. In penny gleek, for example, a mournival of aces got you eight pence from each of the other two players.

Mournival comes most probably from old French mornifle for a group of four cards, which may be the same word as that for a slap in the face (which might be the figurative effect of finding an opponent has one). Gleek is also French, perhaps from an older Dutch word that means “like”. It’s unconnected with the obsolete English word of the same spelling, contemporary with the card game sense, that refers to a joke or playing a trick on somebody.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 21 Aug. 2010

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 21 August 2010.