It occurred to me to wonder where the word domino was from, and what was the earliest sense; per the OED (entry from 1897), the first meaning was “A kind of loose cloak, apparently of Venetian origin, chiefly worn at masquerades, with a small mask covering the upper part of the face, by persons not personating a character,” attested from 1719 (Free-thinker No. 138. 2 Thersites..instead of covering Himself with a Domine, the Habit of a Running-Foot-man), “Sometimes applied to the half-mask itself” (1860 R. W. Emerson Illusions in Conduct of Life 276 The masquerade is at its height. Nobody drops his domino). Sense 2, “A person wearing a domino,” is attested from 1749 (H. Fielding Tom Jones V. xiii. vii. 56 Jones..applied to the Domino, begging and intreating her to shew him the Lady), and the modern sense 3, “One of a number of rectangular pieces (usually 28) of ivory, bone, or wood, having the under side black, and the upper equally divided by a cross line into two squares, each either blank or marked with pips, so as to present all the possible combinations from double blank to double six” or “A game played with these pieces,” only from 1801 (J. Strutt Glig-gamena Angel-ðeod iv. ii. §18 Domino..a very childish sport, imported from France a few years back). As for the etymology, the antiquated OED one is:

< French domino (16th cent. in Hatzfeld & Darmesteter) ‘a kind of hood, or habit for the head, worne by Cannons; (and hence) also, a fashion of vaile vsed by some women that mourne’ (Cotgrave): compare Spanish domino a masquerade garment.
Du Cange cites domino in Latin context, in the sense of a covering of the head and shoulders worn by priests in winter: ‘utantur..caputio vulgariter ung Domino’, ‘caputium seu Domino panni nigri’. Derived in some way from Latin dominus; Darmesteter suggests from some Latin phrase, such as benedicamus Domino. According to Littré, sense 3 came from the supposed resemblance of the black back of each of the pieces to the masquerade garment.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has:

1801, “one of the pieces with which the game of dominoes is played,” from French domino (1771), perhaps (on comparison of the black tiles of the game) from the meaning “hood with a cloak worn by canons or priests over other vestments in cold weather” (1690s), from Latin dominus “lord, master” (from domus “house,” from PIE root *dem- “house, household”), but the connection is not clear.

Klein thinks the game name might be directly from dominus, “because he who has first disposed his pieces becomes ‘the master.’ ”

The Klein suggestion is just silly, but other than that I have nothing to add to this murky subject. If you’re curious about “J. Strutt Glig-gamena Angel-ðeod,” see this 2016 post.


  1. John Cowan says

    Last night we were playing with twelver dominoes (not to be confused with Twelver Shi’ites). Each player forms a separate domino chain, all of which must begin with the same semi-randomly chosen number. If you are unable to play, you draw, and if you are still unable to play, your chain becomes “open”, meaning that anyone can play on it. Your chain closes again when you yourself have played on it. The first to play all their dominoes wins.

  2. David Marjanović says

    I’ve encountered the sense “person dressed in black & white in a context that suggests Venetian carnival”.

  3. Jack Vance used domino for masks (with or without capes) a lot; they were thematic for his frequent “medieval future” settings, such as on the most common cover for The Palace of Love.

    I definitely was influenced by Vance (I do not consider myself a fan, but it just happens that I have read at least twenty of his novels) when I wrote the following:

    The pair rode on for a space. Then abruptly, in front of them there appeared three figures, cloaked and masked. The trio emerged from the secondary entrance of a seemingly untenanted building. They stepped forward to block Damel’s and Lyka’s way, their fawn-hued dominoes trailing behind them in the dust. These men wore no coats of arms, but beneath their voluminous cloaks, Damel saw the outlines of three scabbarded swords.

    One of the men held up his hand—a silent command to halt, with which the pair of foreigners complied. Then the fellow spoke, addressing Damel. “Ho, enchanter!” he called out.

  4. George Grady says

    @John Cowan:

    My family has played that game or a similar one since I was kid. We call it “Mexican train”, although what connection, if any, it has with Mexico I don’t know—my family is of German extraction.

  5. I vaguely remember once reading about a deathbed prank concerning one such item, which had to be produced, because “beatus qui in domino moritur”

  6. John Cowan says

    Indeed, that’s the name we know it by also. Another of our domino games is one played with triominoes: the range is 0-0-0 to 5-5-5, with a number in each corner. Edges must match numerically; you score according to the total number on each triomino you play, with bonuses for constructing certain shapes (50 points for a hexagon, e.g.) The game ends when someone goes out, but the high scorer wins.

  7. Surprisingly, no mentions of Dominicans. They wear white tunic and black mantel and everybody in Russia knows that’s were the name of the game comes from (everybody knows, as usual, means a popular myth).

    Also in Russian the game has some colorful terminology. The popular name of the game is козел (goat), playing the game is called забивать козла (to slaughter a goat), probably because Russian word for slaughter is derived from the word бить (hit, strike), which is what happens during the game with pieces slammed on a table. But this is just my uninformed opinion. The situation when the game is blocked is called рыба (fish). And the stock is called bazaar. Russian wiki reports on more colorful terminology, but I am relaying only what I witnessed personally.

  8. Why consult only English dictionaries? ARTFL gives some pertinent French references:

    “Nous nous y trouvions donc St Julien et moi plus par complaisance que par goût: un soir que l’assemblée étoit fort nombreuse, deux femmes masquées en domino m’aborderent; l’une des deux prit mon bras et me donna quelques cassades pleines d’esprit.” (Jourdan, _Le guerrier philosophe, 1744)

    “Le sultan, choqué de cette déclaration téméraire, résolut de punir celle qui l’avait hasardée. Il disparut, et chercha parmi ses gardes quelqu’un qui fût à peu près de sa taille, lui céda son masque et son domino, et l’abandonna aux poursuites de la petite bourgeoise…” (Diderot, _Les bijoux indiscrets,_ 1746)

    Masks, disguises, freely-speaking women– sounds like good times as only Venice could deliver. (Thanks, ARTFL!)

    Curiously, the word enters Italian from French and not the other way around. Grande dizionario della lingua italiana: “non trovai aperta una bottega di maschere, non fuori ad un pilastro appeso un volto, un di quei dominò di tela lucida fina che così degnamente rappresentano una cappa da becchino. d’annunzio, iv-2-199: ella era vestita diabolicamente, con un dominò nero a lungo cappuccio scarlatto e con una mascherina scarlatta su la faccia. panzini, iv-204: ‘dòmino’, dal fr. domino (la pronuncia * dominò ‘è assai rara): nome in antico dato al camauro de’preti col cappuccio per difesa dal freddo. così per simiglianza al detto camauro venne nel secolo xviii in francia chiamata quella nota specie di cappa che nei balli mascherati si indossa per occultare il volto e la figura. per estensione poi * domino ‘indica la persona stessa che ne è vestita.”

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    “Don’t wanna discuss it / Think it’s time for a change.” The standard account of the Van Morrison song “Domino” appears to be that it took its title from the surname of Antoine (Fats) Domino Jr. But that just pushes the mystery back to the question of how it became a surname (in Louisiana creole society and perhaps before that in French society although wikipedia isn’t showing me a list of French people with that surname).

  10. Excellent question, and one that had never occurred to me!

  11. AJP Crown says

    Dominican as everybody knows comes from domini canes, a restaurant in Latvia.

    Black & white: perhaps this is common knowledge – please tell me if it is – but it dawned on me this morning that Susan Sontag nicked her own striking image from Anne Bancroft‘s portrayal of Mrs Robinson in The Graduate.*

    *It includes Bancroft’s white streak which is in the same place on Sontag but appeared on Sontag quite a bit later than the movie. It makes me think Sontag’s might be simply bleached out; otherwise it’s a hell of a coincidence.

  12. It amazes and amuses me to think that when I saw The Graduate not long after it came out, when I was still a teenager, Anne Bancroft seemed like an “older woman” to me. Now when I see the movie I think of her as an appealing and interesting woman, if too young for me, and Katharine Ross as a vapid kid.

  13. AJP Crown says

    Yeah, likewise (and the appearance of student-age Hoffman is disconcerting). It’s an odd feature of life how attractions develop and change. It shows how we’re not as completely in control of our taste as we like to think.

  14. What with Baltimore being in the news lately, I wondered where the name of the Domino Sugar company came from. The sign is still a city landmark, if you can find a non-rat-infested place to see it from. But googling brought no enlightenment, except that the company was founded by William and Frederick Havemeyer in 1807 in New York City and, after considerable growth, became Domino Sugar in 1900. The only clue Wikipedia supplies is that they were marketing sugar in the form of tablets, so perhaps the name derived from the resemblance to the game pieces.

  15. J.W. Brewer says
  16. But that just pushes the mystery back to the question of how it became a surname (in Louisiana creole society and perhaps before that in French society

    The US Census has one Domino family in the US in 1840, in Ohio. By 1920 they’re all over the place, but not noticeably concentrated in Louisiana.

    I would have thought likely to be a variant of Domingo or something similar.

  17. ə de vivre says

    Vaguely a propos: I had one of those “startlingly obvious after the fact” moments when it was pointed out to me that Chubby Checkers was a play on Fats Domino. Haberiniz olsun.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    @HSaussy: thanks for the reminder about TLFi via ARTFuL. Recently I noticed that initial “A” cropping up, now I know what that’s about. The citations make it clear how far back “domino” goes in French and Italian.

  19. John Cowan says

    Thanks to the north-south East River ferries, you can now see it from the river, which is not notably rat-infested.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    Re startlingly obvious, I wonder how many other stage names are that sort of play on the name of someone else already well-known in the relevant subset of showbiz. The Australian band the Celibate Rifles (a playful inversion of “Sex Pistols”) comes to my mind immediately. The evanescent ’60’s act the Beau Brummels (named to grab the valuable Beatles-adjacent real estate in alphabetically-organized record store bins) reflect an arguably similar yet distinct phenomenon. I don’t just mean thematic similarity (Duke Ellington may have inspired the nickname of Count Basis, Buddy Holly’s Crickets inspired the future Beatles to think of an insect-based name etc.) but something that goes beyond that, as Fats Domino / Chubby Checker definitely does.

  21. I learned today that there is a band named Mournblade, created by fans of Hawkwind (who they sometimes opened for).

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    Well “Mournblade” isn’t a jokey-parallel name like, let’s say, “Owlbreeze” would be. Mournblade is obviously an explicitly Moorcockian name and Hawkwind had become known as a Moorcock-connected band, but it’s not even clear that its name was Moorcockian despite sounding like it might be (and the first couple Hawkmoon books having been published shortly before the band formed — but AFAIK the band didn’t actually cross paths with MM until they were a few albums along). Certainly the standard non-Moorcockian account of the band’s naming has to do with the rather vulgar habits of Nik Turner, as explained e.g. here:

  23. AJP Crown says

    Celibate Rifles (a playful inversion of “Sex Pistols”)

    It could otherwise be an inversion of Friendly Rifles. They used to play in Camberwell in 1976ish when I was at Camberwell School of Art (& Punk). Come to think of it, Friendly Rifles is likely a joke on Sex Pistols, who were also playing down Camberwell way at the time.

    Charles Bullen formed the duo Friendly Rifles with Charles Hayward, who later became the legendary art-punk band This Heat.

    "Art Punk", ugh. It sounds so genteel, like "art-rock" on which it's doubtless based.

  24. “how many other stage names are that sort of play on the name of someone else already well-known in the relevant subset of showbiz” One must surely exclude tribute acts like Mandonna, AC/DShe, Beatallica.

    The internet knows a few groups called The Weavils who seem to share nothing with The Beatles (or each other) beyond an arthrupod name.

  25. I wonder how many other stage names are that sort of play on the name of someone else already well-known in the relevant subset of showbiz

    Alvin Stardust took his name from the Bowie character Ziggy Stardust. The band Frankie Goes To Hollywood took their name from a Frank Sinatra poster. The Monkees emulated The Beatles in naming themselves after a group of animals, misspelled, and the Beatles in turn emulated Buddy Holly’s band, the Crickets.

  26. Back in 1964, when Beatlemania hit the US, there were a bunch of fake bands with names intended to confuse the eager consumer into thinking they were buying a Beatles record (e.g., The Bootles, though I don’t know if that was one of them); there’s probably a list on the internet somewhere.

  27. In the Northern England music halls there was Nosmo King, named for a backstage sign.

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    Perhaps it was otherwise in Camberwell in 1976, but for me the potentially-pejorative implicature of “art-punk” is not “genteel” but “affected/pretentious.” The music’s not necessarily gonna sound any more polished or less noisy than not-so-artsy-punk, but is more likely to be accompanied by an explanatory manifesto suggesting that the performers have overthought it.

  29. But affected/pretentious can be really great.

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    I certainly would not deny that much great music has been made by artists who were affected and/or pretentious. Of course, I would likewise not deny that much great music has been made by artists who were heroin addicts, so . . .

  31. AJP Crown says

    …And then there are the pretentious heroin addicts. Actually I’m not sure Patti Smith was a heroin addict but I did read her book M Train:

    Some months before our first wedding anniversary Fred told me that if I promised to give him a child he would take me anywhere in the world. Without hesitation I chose Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, a border town in northwest French Guiana on the North Atlantic coast of South America.

    The reason affected/pretentious was a problem in London was – sorry, Language – political. The London punk scene was quite political in a disorganised kind of way. Sid Vicious & co thought that “art” and “school” were luxury pursuits for dilettantes that weren’t available to the working class. So they sort of despised Brian Eno, Roxy Music & Pink Floyd for that as much as for the music.

  32. The excellent Rock ‘n’ Roll Babylon has a chapter on shameless Beatles knockoffs. I don’t have it, so all I remember is one called The Buggs.

    Per WP, the story about the Beau Brummels is a myth.

  33. Better Than The Beatles! 26 Tunes That Failed to Oust the Fab-Four From the Charts: most of the band names are not insect-related, but it includes The Weavils, The Beatle-ettes, and of course The Buggs.

  34. Oh, the Humanity!
    Why doesn’t it include Donna Lynn’s My Boyfriend Got A Beatle Haircut? Maybe it wasn’t obscure enough.

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    One of the first long pieces published in the US music press about the punk-rock thing way back when was the result of Lester Bangs (may his memory be eternal) being flown across the Atlantic by the record label to spend time hanging out with the Clash. Somewhere in the first few paragraphs he included the immortal words “1. I do not know shit about the English class system. 2. I do not care shit about the English class system.” Because he was aggravated by everyone he met in London telling him that the only way to understand his subject was through that prism. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t one useful way to understand things … But although obviously AJP was there and I wasn’t, my impression had always been that “art school” worked quite differently in the UK in the sixties/seventies than it did in the US, and the reason so many British rock musicians came out of art schools was that frankly they weren’t very posh but had ended up de facto being a place the UK sent a lot of vaguely bright-but-aimless kids from not-very-posh families who weren’t (partly because of class issues) going to go to uni but needed to be warehoused somewhere for a while before they made the unemployment statistics look even worse. Now, maybe within the universe of UK art schools there was a prestige hierarchy and some (maybe including the one AJP mentioned) were quite posh and other ones, like the ones Viv Albertine talks about attending in her memoir (I think one of them is where she first met Mick Jones before either of them were officially punk-rockers) weren’t. And maybe there were other rungs in the hierarchy well below the “go screw around in art school for a few years and maybe start a band” rung.

    Re M Train, whatever problems Patti may have had in her life did not include opioids. Part of the key to understanding the whole Patti thing imho is realizing that while she talks a very good game of bohemianism she always had a remarkable drive and steely will that many/most boho types lack — in fact the key running subtext to her memoir about her life with Mapplethorpe is that she very obviously doesn’t want to hear anyone ever say anything negative about him but then she keeps showing with anecdote after anecdote that he was a fundamentally weak person in ways where she was fundamentally strong.

    EDITED TO ADD: Most/all of the Sex Pistols liked Roxy Music although various of them had “they were good until such-and-such album, then not” qualifications. The internet allows me to cut and paste “Andy Mackay’s deadpan retelling of a discussion he had with Sid Vicious, in which Sid offered the most concise piece of rock criticism ever recorded. ‘He said, ‘Yeah, I really like Roxy. But I think Bryan Ferry’s a cunt.”” Maybe a fair point, although the way Ferry turned himself into a toff despite being from way up North and having a dad who worked in the coal mines suggests that this whole “English class system” thing is quite complex indeed.

  36. AJP Crown says

    JW, this may be my favorite Language Hat comment ever: the most interesting, from a personal standpoint, and I’m only sorry it’s marginally about language & hats. Thank you. And thank you, Lester Bangs ( I remember that trip). Who knew that Andy Mackay had Vicious calling Ferry a cunt (which he is, politically speaking, though I like his oeuvre).

    There’s currently a Mapplethorpe backlash, I was reading only today someone describe him (now that he can’t answer back) as a fashion photographer. I know from my own photography that his pictures start by being technically perfect, and that’s not easy. His pics imo are up there with Cartier-Bresson and other big thinkers about what photography can do. I’ll take another look at M Train based on your comment.

    Not many of the art school musicians were posh as far as I know. John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Eno? Lower-middle, the lot. I think Joe Strummer is a weird one, vacillating and not half as upper- as he’d like to have been. Still, that probably bothers me more than it ever did him, with his bonfires. Class is the English burden.

  37. I still remember the shock of Lester Bangs’ death.

  38. John Cowan says

    The Rutles (pronounced “ruttles”), which was originally an imaginary band devised by Eric Idle but later became a real band that toured and released albums and everything.

  39. J.W. Brewer says

    Thank you for your kind words AJP. I haven’t myself actually gotten to M Train yet – my comment was my takeaway from Just Kids. My other big takeaway from Just Kids was a continuing sense of astonishment that the consistently lucid and easy-to-follow narrative prose (maybe she’s an unreliable narrator of her own life, but not an opaque or confusing one) was coming from the same woman who had generated all the delirious-to-incomprehensible prose poems collected in Babel, a battered paperback copy of which I read and reread over and over again when I was in high school in the early ’80’s.

    And let me again put in a good word for Viv Albertine’s memoir (titled Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys). One review claimed that, to the reviewer’s surprise, it could actually be read with profit by someone who wasn’t a fan of the Slits and had never even heard the Slits’ music — which I can’t independently confirm the accuracy of but I thought was quite an interesting claim. Even more than Patti’s book it gives a good sense of how unprogressive the supposedly most progressive/boho subcultures of the sixties through seventies were when it came to male/female stuff and how hard it was for girls with an ambition to be something other than a groupie/muse/hanger-on. Some of the book is much darker than the light-hearted title would suggest, and her career as a cult-music legend ends halfway through, because she obviously insisted to her publisher that if you want all my anecdotes about Sid Vicious etc etc you’re also going to print a hundred-plus pages about the rest of my life as a generic/anonymous middle-aged British woman (regular job, marriage, medical problems, infertility, motherhood, divorce, trying to start over aged fiftysomething). And that approach works surprisingly well for the most part.

  40. I’ve heard Patti Smith and Viv Albertine interviewed and they both sounded extraordinarily thoughtful and interesting; I’d like to read their memoirs.

  41. I second all the kind words about your comment, JWB.

    Does anyone write like this in academia? There are professors and PhD students who occupy themselves with the minutiae of intellectual life among, say, the Bloomsbury Group, or Dr. Johnson’s circle. It’s respectable for musicologists to study some older popular entertainment, like waltzes or ragtime. I may be wrong, but I believe that there are very few academic musicologists who engage in full-time study of punk, or any other post-war popular American music, and even fewer who would study the direputable bohemians of New York or Los Angeles in the 1970s. There are plenty of music journalists and radio DJs who know a lot about all that, but they are not getting the big bucks and the elbow patches.

  42. Stu Clayton says

    Goodness, are there really academic musicologists earning big bucks ? I’m sure they have to pay for the elbow patches themselves.

  43. By “big bucks” I mean, more than music journalists and DJs. Plus they have benefits and possibly tenure, and they get to teach and to have research assistants.

  44. Stu Clayton says

    “Big bucks” must be music to their ears, a rarely performed divertimento. I’m willing to believe they accept research assistants in lieu of cash, and hope sostenuto in lieu of tenure.

  45. David Marjanović says

    Research assistants don’t exist anymore. They’re now assistant professors and have to do their own teaching.

  46. AJP Crown says

    Y is right; write a book, JW.

  47. J.W. Brewer says

    I appreciate all the positive comments, and encourage any/all Hattics with connections to eccentric-and-benevolent rich people to get back to me when a suitable donor has been located to endow the Bangsian Chair of Punkrockology at a university willing to hire for the post a candidate who lacks a Ph.D. and has a publication record in the field consisting exclusively of internet comments and posts.

    FWIW “jazz studies” is definitely a thing at some U.S. universities. I feel like probably most university-based types who have written about more punk-rock stuff, at least in the US, are doing a sort of applied sociology where the music is an interesting symptom of some other thing which is what they really want to write about rather than the primary object of interest. But I may have overlooked someone out there. This lady (who lacks a Ph.D. and is not necessarily in a tenured situation) has maybe a slightly different angle and gets away with being on a journalism faculty, in which context I guess teaching how-to-write-about-popular-music is a relevant subset of teaching how-to-write-for-the-popular-press.

    One of my fellow late-night punk-rock DJ’s at the radio station back when we were in college eventually managed to work out an academic career for himself as a historian of radio, but his latest scholarly book focuses on an earlier epoch of broadcasting than the one in which we were personally participants.

  48. How does he pronounce Vaillant?

  49. AJP Crown says

    Your best bet is a MacArthur grant. Find someone who’s won one and ask them to nominate you. You’ll be rich, you can work from home and academic job offers will soon come flooding in. I’d choose somewhere with warm winters over somewhere prestigious, but you can get both in southern California.

  50. The Hattery will, of course, expect a kind mention in the Acknowledgments.

  51. “Jazz studies” became more respectable when jazz became more respectable, with tuned pianos, no-smoking performance spaces (back when not all were), and expensive tickets.

Speak Your Mind