Deck or Pack?

I was trying to decide whether to say “deck of cards” or “pack of cards” when it occurred to me to wonder which was older. It turns out they both go back to the late 16th century — first OED cite 1583 for “pack” (H. Howard Defensatiue sig. Hh4ᵛ “Some marke Cardes, and some the dealing of the Cardes, some sette theyr rest vppon the packe..when all the packs, are shuffeled”) and 1594 for “deck” (1st Pt. Raigne Selimus sig. F4ᵛ “If I chance but once to get the decke, To deale about and shufle as I would”) — but the interesting thing is the distribution; the “deck” entry says “Since 17th cent. dialect and in U.S.” But that entry is from 1894, and I’m curious if the situation is still as described there: do Brits say only “pack”?


  1. What did they call it before 1583?

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    I myself only say “pack”, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to tag “deck” as a Horrid Americanism. Just goes to show … something …

  3. What did they call it before 1583?

    The Historical Thesaurus has earlier “bunch,” but that’s only from 1563 (J. Foxe Actes & Monuments 1298/1 It wold make vp the beste cote carde beside in the bunche, yea though it were the kyng of Clubbes).

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    According to the google n-gram viewer, “deck of cards” first became more common than “pack of cards” in their “British English” subcorpus in 2014, whereas it had taken the lead in the “American English” subcorpus initially in 1946 and then permanently (after some back-and-forthing) in 1952. That said, I’m not sure quite how good the coding is in assembling those subcorpora. “Pack” doesn’t sound unidiomatic to my American ear, but I feel like only “deck” (and not “pack”) can be the direct object of the verb “to shuffle.” Although obviously “the cards” can also fit into that direct-object slot.

    Similarly, I can’t swap “pack” into the idiom “to deal from the bottom of the deck,” but there’s a Sydney Morning Herald story from 2012 headlined “Playing the sexism card from the bottom of the pack,” so AustEng apparently does not follow my idiolect’s sense of the matter.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    I would say “shuffle the pack” but “cut the deck.” I have absolutely no idea why. Perhaps I first encountered the concept of deck-cutting in some American context. I imagine poker and saloons were involved. (“Never play cards with a man called Doc.”)

  6. David Marjanović says

    “Playing the sexism card from the bottom of the pack,”

    …oh, so that’s what “bottom of the pack” refers to!

  7. ‘Do Brits say only “pack”?’ Yes, as far as this Brit is concerned. I think of “deck” as a US usage — one that I first encountered in the lyrics of 1960s pop and C&W songs.

  8. Hmm, and for this Brit (born in ’80) ‘deck’ doesn’t stand out at all as being American. For me and my card-playing buddies, the two terms are clearly interchangeable (maybe some instances where they are not will occur to me at some point). Along with DE, I would also say ‘cut the deck’, but I have definitely heard ‘cut the pack’ and it doesn’t sound weird. If anything, ‘deck’ feels more like the slightly more formal, technical alternative, but that may well just be me.

  9. ə de vivre says

    If you’re the flavour of nerd who plays collectible card games like Magic the Gathering, ‘pack’ and ‘deck’ refer to two different kinds of things. A pack is a wrapped set of cards that you buy from the store. A deck is a set of cards that is of the necessary size and composition to play a game with. For example, “I found a Chalice of the Void in the booster pack I just picked up. I’m going to put that card in the Eldrazi Tron deck I’m brewing for the next tournament.”

  10. My usage seems to be just the same as J. W. Brewer’s (which is not unusual).

  11. My general usage must stem from what ə de vivre describes: if the 52 cards are inside the box/covering still, it’s a pack (“Can you get a pack of cards from upstairs?”), but once outside the box, it’s a deck of cards.

  12. Echoing what other AE speakers have written, it’s a pack until I sit down to play. Then it becomes a deck.

  13. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I would definitely call the whole lump of cards you hold in your hand a pack, but I’m not sure if I’d use ‘deck’ for the pile put on the table once the cards in use have been dealt out, in the kind of game where you take a card from the top of it.
    (I’m not sure I’d often call it anything unless reading out instructions, which doesn’t help my confusion!)

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Right now, has 51 instances of “deck” and 22 of “pack.” I expect this reflects the personal dialect preferences of different contributors with no one yet successfully forcing uniformity, rather than some consensus on which word is better in which slightly-different context, but I could be wrong about that.

  15. “Since I dealt them last time it’s your turn to shuffle
    And my turn to show the best card in the pack
    Once more she’d the ace and the deuce for to beat me
    Once again I had lost when I laid down poor jack”
    (“The Game of Cards“–somewhat suggestive English folk song)

    I’m usually indifferent as to which term, but there is one case where I would definitely say “deck”, and that is when all the cards are laid out on the table, as in some solitaire games, like FreeCell. Some people might say “tableau” or perhaps other terms for such cases. To me a “pack” has to be in some sort of pile.

  16. American, but for me deck of cards is the everyday term I’d use, signifying a complete set of cards, whereas pack of cards is mostly a casino term signifying a “fresh deck” opened in front of the gamblers to show its authenticity. After you’ve used them, it’s no longer a “pack”…at least in Nevada (my home these days).

  17. A full deck, yes. A full pack, no. Split the deck, yes. Split the pack, maybe.

  18. Alice’s last words in Wonderland were, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

    As a child I said “pack” always, and viewed “deck” as American. I think “pack” is still my default word. If the cards are in their cardbox box, they certainly form a “pack”. In games where at any instant only a minority of cards are in players’ hands, the pile comprising the other cards could be called the “deck”, but not the “pack”.

  19. Fluent ESL speaker, heavily US-influenced, but still bucking the trend, with a twist;
    – A pack of playing cards
    – A deck of punched cards

  20. We manage to split the difference in Finnish with (kortti)pakka, otherwise not a common word so perhaps better glossed as ‘deck’ (also kangaspakka ‘bolt of cloth’); though paketti ‘pack’ has still been calqued for the collectible cards sense.

    Come to think of it, we can probably do etymology to the English case too. Does deck derive from the ‘patio, stage, etc.’ sense, or is there some other option? If the former, is the sense ‘set of cards set on the table, e.g. after players have drawn their hands’ then the original one for this? This would be consistent with the people thinking it’s more or less pack ‘a full set of cards in its packaging’, deck ‘a set of cards in play’ (and I imagine, after e.g. discarding jokers when they’re not used in a game).

  21. For me, tarot has to be “deck”, not “pack”. Dunno why.

  22. As an American, “pack of cards” generally describes the physical object, “deck of cards” describes the cards when being used in play. I would buy a pack of cards in the store and then deal from the deck. Similar to the distinction laowai makes above. I can substitute “deck” for “pack” without too much cognitive dissonance, but never vice-versa.

  23. This Brit uses both, but for me at list they’re not entirely interchangeable, and the distinction is similar to ə de vivre’s, even though I don’t play collectible card games. ‘Pack’ refers to the physical object, ‘deck’ is more abstract – I would use it when talking about a particular set or design of cards, for example. So I’d get a pack of cards out of the drawer to play a game, but I’d talk about a ‘short deck’ or a ‘French deck’. I’ve got no idea how much of this is idiolectal, though.

  24. For me, a pack of cards belongs to a group of items of similar size that come in a carton or wrapper, that one used to commonly buy at a drugstore or a newsstand: a pack of cigarettes, a pack of gum, a pack of condoms, etc.

    When it comes to playing a game, the full complement of cards inside the pack would be the deck, as would be any subset that was appropriate for playing a given game. After removing the jokers from a deck of playing cards, one would still have a deck, for example, for most card games.

    When it comes to gameplay verbs like “to deal from”, “to shuffle”, “to cut”, I’d use “deck”; however, I might also “deal/shuffle/cut the cards”.

    I could play with either a deck or a pack, and I could purchase either as well.

    In the Google Ngram viewer English corpus, the term “deck of cards” became more common than “pack of cards” in the late 1950s and the former is about 1½ times as common as the latter today.

    But in their subcorpora for American English and British English the results are different. In British English, the two are currently roughly even; whereas, in the American English corpus, “deck of cards” is about 4-5 times as common as “pack of cards”.

  25. Echoing Pau Amma, definitely a deck of punch cards.

    Although it’s something I haven’t seen in several decades.

    At one time in my life I tended to use punch cards as bookmarks, since they were so ubiquitous, so that that now, when I’m rereading my library, I often come across them, but singly, not in decks.

    Not ubiquitous any more, but more of a blast from the past. It must be something like 45 years or more since I seriously used a punch card.

    There was a time when you could tell the CS students on campus because they were carrying around boxes of punch cards.

  26. Related to some comments above, a new set of cards is a pack, but a deck, when…unpacked?

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    And a pack when undecked, of course.

  28. Undeck–to remove the Jokers?

  29. PlasticPaddy says

    Bailey’s dictionary has deck = “a pack of cards piled regularly on each other”

  30. There are some technologies for which I am unsure whether to ascribe my unfamiliarity to my being just that bit too young or to Ireland’s being just that bit too late to the affluent economy (or both, of course). One such technology is 8-track tape; punchcards are another. I first encountered “Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate” as an email autosignature.

  31. Lars Mathiesen says

    Even in Denmark, car radios (so called) were just that, (mono) FM radio until compact cassettes were well enough established that they were the natural choice. I’ve only seen an actual 8-track unit once in my life, and that may have been in the UK.

    We had lots of punch cards used for giro payments until OCR made that obsolete. I don’t remember a formulation like the “do not fold, …” one, though — I guess the lady at the post office just made sure you never did it again, and then it was processed using the printed info on the card.

  32. definitely a deck of punch cards

    It’s a long time ago, but I think I recall referring to trays of punch cards. We would put the cards in purpose-built metal trays and slide them through slots in a wall, on the other side of which the computer operators lived. Some hours later you would go back and retrieve the tray along with what you hoped was a big stack of print-out from a successful run, except that in some cases it was a couple of sheets saying ‘failed to compile’ along with incomprehensible error codes and the like.

  33. Yes, I remember that from learning FORTRAN circa 1969.

  34. Lars Mathiesen says

    Last time I used a Hollerith machine in anger was some 35 years ago, back when people were able to talk about computer-adjacent subjects in Danish, so I think we said en stak hulkort. But I do seem to remember references to special prepunched “start of deck” and “end of deck” cards in stand-out colors used on IBM kit. (We were a Univac shop).

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    Lars Mathiesen’s comment makes me focus on “tape deck” and “cassette deck” as once-conventional names for certain objects that you could play your cassettes on (typically larger ones that would be part of a stationary home stereo/hi-fi system, as opposed to something portable or installed in a car). Wiktionary gives one sense of “deck” as “short for tape deck” but provides no information as to what other prior sense of “deck” gave rise by metaphorical extension to “tape deck” and now that I reflect upon it there’s no answer that seems obvious to me.

    FWIW, googling (including reviewing contemporaneous publications in the google books corpus) indicates that “eight-track deck” is Out There, but it sounds a bit odd to my ear and I have no reliable memory of having actually heard it back in the Seventies, which doesn’t mean I didn’t. We never had one in our house even at the height of their popularity, because my father was a reel-to-reel man who was grudgingly willing to adapt to cassettes.

  36. Working with punch cards instilled in my father a hatred for computers that lasted for a very long time (well into the microcomputer age). In the summer of 1972, between graduate school and medical school, he had a job doing computer simulations of electromagnetic pulses for the Unites States Army in Maryland. What was apparently particularly horrendous about the situation was that after feeding the punch cards into the computer in one location, he had to drive to the other side of the base to pick up the output. Besides the routine inconvenience, it was especially dispiriting if the only output he received was an inscrutable error message.

    @J.W. Brewer: I don’t think I had really thought about it until now, but it seems to me that “tape/cassette deck” is almost certainly the direct linguistic antecedent to the kind of “cyberspace deck” used by the characters in Neuromancer &ff.

  37. To me a tape recorder (cassette, reel-to-reel, or whatever) has speakers, and you can play back a tape with it. A tape deck doesn’t have any speakers, and can only play back by being connected to a stereo system, either at home or in your car.

    Complicated by the fact that most tape decks had headphone jacks, so you could actually play back through headphones.

    I’m not sure where this usage came from, but I don’t think it was related to a deck of cards. Perhaps referring to something that was mounted in a console? A flat workspace that was set out in front of you.

  38. John Cowan says

    Thus the OED:

    ‘A pack of cards piled regularly on each other’ (Johnson); also the portion of the pack left, in some games, after the hands have been dealt. Since 17th cent. dialect and in U.S.

    1594 1st Pt. Raigne Selimus sig. F4v If I chance but once to get the decke, To deale about and shufle as I would.

    1594 R. Barnfield Shepheard Content viii. sig. Eiij Pride deales the Deck whilst Chance doth choose the Card.

    1595 W. Shakespeare Henry VI, Pt. 3 v. i. 44 But whilst he sought to steale the single ten, The king was finelie fingerd from the decke.

    1609 R. Armin Hist. Two Maids More-clacke sig. D1v Ile deale the cards and cut ye from the decke.

    1701 N. Grew Cosmol. Sacra i. iii. §21 The Selenites [have the shape], of Parallel Plates, as in a Deck of Cards.

    1777 J. Brand Observ. Pop. Antiq. (1849) II. 449 In some parts of the North of England a pack of cards is called to this day..a deck of cards.

    1860 in J. R. Bartlett Dict. Americanisms (ed. 3)

    1882 B. Harte Flip 135 I reckon the other fifty-one of the deck ez as pooty [i.e. pretty].

    1884 R. Holland Gloss. Words County of Chester (1886) Deck o’ cards, a pack of cards.

    1885 Cent. Mag. 29 548/1 An old ratty deck of cards.

    The later but now obsolete sense ‘ pile of things laid flat upon each other’ is plainly related, as is the 20-21C AmE sense ‘multi-line part of a complex headline’.

  39. @John Cowan: I was interested in that 1701 cite:

    1701 N. Grew Cosmol. Sacra i. iii. §21 The Selenites [have the shape], of Parallel Plates, as in a Deck of Cards.

    Google immediately showed that it was the source of a number of other interesting dictionary citations. The book itself is Cosmologia sacra, or a discourse of the universe as it is the creature and kingdom of God: chiefly written, to demonstrate the truth and excellency of the Bible, which contains the laws of his kingdom in this lower world: in five books by Nehemiah Grew, available in its entirety at the Internet Archive. Skimming bits of it, it seems like a rather peculiar book, but I don’t know whether it would have seemed strange to readers at the time it was published.

    For headlines, a deck is a single line is a multi-line hed or (or a hed-sub=hed* structure, which would features decks in different font sizes.)

    * See here for my thoughts on double hyphen typography.

  40. Here’s the entire paragraph:

    XI. But the Regularity of Principles diſcovers it ſelf more apparently in Conſiſtent Bodies; and that in all the Kingdoms of Corporeal Nature. Diamonds are often ſexangularly pointed in their Native Beds. Chryſtal is in its natural Growth a Sexangular Priſme, Sexangularly pointed. Granates are Multangularly Round. And beſides Gemms, many other ſorts of Stones are regularly figured; the Aſteria in form of a Star; the Iudiack Stone, of a Pear; the Amianthus, of Parallel Threads, as in the Pile of Velvet; the Selenites, of Parallel Plates, as in a Deck of Cards; and they are of a Rhombick Figure; Talk, of ſuch as are Rhomboid; with many other Diverſities.

  41. Anybody know what that pear-shaped “Iudiack”* stone he’s talking about would be?

    * From the page image, it looks like the first letter should be an uppercase i, not lowercase L,** contrary to the OCR. However, searches with initial “i-” or “j-” or “L-” (as well as varying the ending letter) all yielded equally empty results.

    ** Cases here are chosen to make the letter forms unambiguous, even though they don’t match the text.

  42. I wondered about that too.

  43. PlasticPaddy says

    I would emend Iudiack to Indiac(k). Candidates are
    indico (this was spelling for indigo)
    Lapis lazuli (sourced from Afghanistan or Pakistan)
    There is also lapis corvinus indiae (cacaoteti), which makes a noise like thunder when heated.

  44. The Judiac stone or lapis judaicus, as here (“Since it occurs in Judea from whence it is brought, even today, Dioscorides named it judaicus”) and here, was apparently a fossil of some sort. This source says a fossil pentremite.

  45. Here is a very interesting article on the topic, adding a great deal more precision with fine illustrations.

  46. It’s curious that Wiktionary does not so much as mention parking deck. I guess I’ve come across it in a Kay Scarpetta novel.

  47. @Xerîb: Thanks! I did also search for “Judaic stone” and variants thereof, but that mostly turned up links to Jewish cemetery observances. I was puzzled by what kind of mineral could characteristically have formed in pear shapes, but a fossil echinoderm of course makes perfect sense!

  48. Trond Engen says

    Hat: Here’s the entire paragraph:

    XI. But the Regularity of Principles diſcovers it ſelf more apparently in Conſistent Bodies;[…]

    What’s the rule for <ſ> and <s>?

  49. What’s the rule for <ſ> and <s>?

    Andrew West of BabelStone took the time to figure it out, and wrote a little something about it. It goes something like this (or as pdf here).

  50. David Marjanović says

    Oh, awesome.


  51. What’s the rule for ſ and s?

    My bad — it should be Conſiſtent, and I just fixed it in the blockquote above.

  52. Trond Engen says

    Ah. No bad at all. Were it not for that spelling of ‘Conſiſtent’ I probably wouldn’t have asked.

  53. David Marjanović says

    History and rules for ſ in German: s at the ends of syllables and morphemes, ſ otherwise, with great attention paid to etymology, e.g. tranſzendent because it’s trans-ſcendens in the original and somebody decided the s of trans is what drops out.

    The article also mentions how long the Duden kept using either ſ in its headwords, or underlined s for when not to use it: 1947 in the West, 1975 in the East!

    Also mentioned are some Early Soviet attempts to use ſ for a phoneme distinct from s in some of the newly created Latin alphabets. Not mentioned are the earliest printed works in Slovene, at least some of which used ſ for /z/, s for /s/, and of course z for /ts/.

    Edited to remove all <i> tags around ſ: italicized ſ differs from / by one pixel on average. Also, the <u> tag isn’t allowed here.

    Edited again because I forgot to add this impressive title page included in the article to illustrate the use of ſ in English: With ſeveral other Remarkable Matters.

  54. There’s a stray f in “many other forts of Stones” that should be ſ.

  55. “italicized ſ differs from / by one pixel on average”
    What font are you looking at this with?

  56. There’s a stray f in “many other forts of Stones” that should be ſ.

    Fixed, thanks!

  57. David Marjanović says

    What font are you looking at this with?

    Whatever Firefox for Windows 7 throws at me. It looks like Arial, and when it doesn’t have separate italic (or bold) glyphs, e.g. for flag emoji, it slants or widens the normal glyph; I think that’s what’s going on here.

    However, ſ is also wider than / when italicized. It’s just the curve at the top that can disappear.

  58. @maidhc To me …. A tape deck doesn’t have any speakers, and can only play back by being connected to a stereo system, either at home or in your car. …

    I’m not sure where this usage came from, but I don’t think it was related to a deck of cards. Perhaps referring to something that was mounted in a console? A flat workspace that was set out in front of you.

    Yes I assume same as ‘record deck’ “When used in conjunction with a mixer as part of a DJ setup, turntables are often colloquially called “decks”.” because a tape deck needs two reels lying flat, like two turntables lying flat plus some gizmos to control playback.

    etymonline Deck “Meaning “pack of cards necessary to play a game” is from 1590s, perhaps because they were stacked like decks of a ship.”; and indeed gives tape-deck (1949) but not record deck.

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