A recent Rusty Foster post investigates a usage of the term “jackpot” I wasn’t familiar with (the usual ‘big prize’ sense comes from “a form of poker, where the pool or pot accumulated until a player could open the bidding with two jacks or better”); discussing the search for “a new label that we can apply to our chaotic historical moment,” he writes:

In Ploughshares Rachel Nevins excerpted Gibson’s 2014 novel “The Peripheral” where a character describes the jackpot as:

…nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves.


For me what makes “jackpot” rise above options like “the terrible twenties” or the entertaining “assholocene” is its referential ambiguity. I don’t usually think of a jackpot as a negative thing. A jackpot is something you win, right? You pull a slot machine handle, the wheels spin, the cherries line up: jackpot! You scoop up the coins.

But there’s a darker edge to this word. To find yourself ”in a jackpot” means to get in a jam, to be in trouble. In 2018, Deadspin’s Timothy Burke (not sticking to sports) traced that second meaning from a 2016 baseball argument through Baltimore police slang, World War Two era Western novels, and back to Baltimore again where he found it in a 1926 Baltimore Sun article about the practice of gambling on the ownership of slaves; literally putting enslaved people “in the jackpot” of a card game.

According to at least one guy on Reddit this sense of jackpot “was common parlance” on cattle ranches. This thread finally reminded me where else I’ve seen “jackpot” used to mean “trouble,” and of course it was Cormac McCarthy. He used it at least twice, in “All the Pretty Horses” […]

The actual jackpot is a blank space in Gibson’s chronology. But McCarthy’s books are all jackpot.

So far so good, but in the MetaFilter thread where I got this stuff, jamjam says “Don’t know Gibson at all beyond the titles of one or two of his books, but I’d make a small bet he’s alluding to Heinlein’s famous 1952 short story The Year of the Jackpot.” Which must be correct; here’s a quote from the Heinlein (punctuation corrected from a better text):

What do you think? Three of the big ones troughed in 1929 and the depression almost ruined us . . . even with the big 54-year cycle supporting things. Now we’ve got the big one troughing and the few crests are not things that help. I mean to say, tent caterpillars and influenza don’t do us any good, Meade, if statistics mean anything, this tired old planet hasn’t seen a jackpot like this since Eve went into the apple business. I’m scared.”

She searched his face. “Potty — you’re not simply having fun with me? You know I can’t check up on you.”

“I wish to heaven I were. No, Meade, I can’t fool about numbers; I wouldn’t know how. This is it. The Year of the Jackpot.”

The term “Cthulhucene,” mentioned in the thread, is also excellent.


  1. The “two jacks” explanation for the Poker term jackpot seems iffy to me. Could it come from jack-, as in e.g. jackrabbit and jackknife, with a sense of size?

    For jackpot, Green’s Dictionary has ‘a dilemma, a difficult situation, trouble’ and ‘an arrest’, He also has 24 separate entries for the noun jack, almost all unfamiliar to me (including ‘telephone’, ‘anus’, and ‘kookaburra’). The OED has dozens of jacks as well.

  2. The “two jacks” explanation for the Poker term jackpot seems iffy to me.

    Nope, the OED (entry revised 2018) says:

    1.a. Poker. In draw poker: a pot or pool which accumulates until one of the players can open the betting with a pair of jacks or better. Also in plural: poker played with such a pot.

    First cite:

    1865 A, B, C, and D are playing draw poker. It’s a jack pot.
    National Police Gazette (U.S.) 4 May 11

  3. David Marjanović says

    Iä! Iä!

    (sudden urge to use the Ä key on my keyboard)

  4. You want to be eaten first, eh?

  5. The “two jacks” explanation for the Poker term jackpot seems iffy to me.

    I had no idea that v. dis’card came from cardgames until I head the bridge term n. ‘discard

    There is also acepots but “First Known Use circa 1950” would be late enough to be a back-formation if we didn’t already know otherwise.

  6. jack morava says

    I’m trying to plot a path in semantic space from jackpot to honeypot via online thesauruses; it seems not to be so easy. Both terms have favorable/unfavorable sets of connotations…

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    The seeming problem with the pair-of-jacks-or-better explanation is that jacks-or-better hands are not particularly uncommon – if you deal out six five-card hands from a deck the odds are >50% that at least one will have jacks-or-better, so situations where the pot will accumulate more than one round of antes would not be particularly common, you would think.

    One online explanation claims, however, that this was a form of draw poker, so after the antes and one round of betting based on the as-initially-dealt (assuming someone could open betting by having jacks-or-better), everyone has a chance to try to improve their hands by trading in some of their cards and seeing if the replacement cards make it better. The key point being that after that try-to-improve-your hand phase and another round of betting, no one wins without three-of-a-kind-or-better, which is a significantly more challenging hurdle than jacks-or-better. The chance that a random five-card hand will be three-of-a-kind-or-better is about 2.9% – I don’t know the math for how much better those odds get when people can trade cards (although of course they’re trading for selections from the undealt remainder of the deck, not a full deck). Since (if you let people exchange up to three of their initial cards, as is common) you can’t have more than six people playing at a time, the odds that the best hand once the dust settles will be less good than three-of-a-kind will be quite high, and you can thus get significant round-to-round accumulation of the pot.

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