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Pronounced /ˈɒmbə/Help with pronunciation

Every period has had its fashionable card games. From the middle of the seventeenth century, everyone in English society wanted to play ombre.

Its heyday began immediately after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, since Charles II and his courtiers brought it back with them from France. However, ombre was originally Spanish, and the name is a corruption of hombre, man, because the person leading the game was “the man” who had to be beaten. (The name was usually pronounced like “omber”, though some said it like “ombray” to be nearer the original Spanish.) It was popular for generations in Europe and is still played in some countries, so it has had many other names as well. Ombre stayed in fashion into the eighteenth century and was immortalised in Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock of 1714, in which a game of ombre is described in detail.

It was a bidding game for three players using a standard pack of 52 cards but with the 8s, 9s, and 10s removed to simulate the 40-card pack used in Spain. The rules were complicated, with many oddities, and full of strange foreign terms: Codillio, Repuesto, Voll, Gagno, Spadillio, Basto. The person who lost a hand was said to be beasted and so an early English alternative name was beast.

Women took to it with especial pleasure, though an anonymous letter writer to the Spectator in August 1711, whom I assume to be male, said accusingly that it often brought out the worst in them: “I have observed Ladies, who in all other respects are Gentle, Good-humoured, and the very Pinks of good Breeding; who as soon as the Ombre Table is called for, and set down to their Business, are immediately Transmigrated into the veriest Wasps in Nature.” Or is this the plaint of a bad loser?

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 18 Sep. 2004

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Last modified: 18 September 2004.