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How Did Rummy Get Its Name?

Rummy is one of the most popular card games in the world, whether it’s played for money or just for fun;in tournaments or between friends and family. As card games go, though, it’s not particularly old. It was created either in China or in Mexico circa 1890, though it seems to have been derived from games that are centuries or even millennia older.   

And yet for all of its popularity – it’s especially huge in India, where it is one of the few card games that can be played for money, if not the only one – it does have a rather strange name. Easier to pronounce maybe than its parent games (Conquian, Mahjong or Khanhoo, depending on who you ask) but still, it’s an odder title than poker or blackjack – though quite how they got their names is probably a whole story in and of itself.

King of hearts

Like the confused origins of the game itself, there are two primary theories regarding why the game of rummy is called rummy. The first is that when it was played in Mexico or Spain, it wasn’t played for cash but for bottles of rum. The second is that the name is actually English and was shortened from “rummy poker”. “Rummy” in British slang means “odd” or “peculiar” and combine that with the fact that there are certain similarities to poker in the way melds actually resemble poker hands like three-of-a-kind or a straight, and you do indeed have rummy poker.

However, while rummy can refer to a specific game, also called classic rummy, it also refers to a whole family of games, all of which were derived from it and became popular as they spread across the 20th century. And some of these derivatives have even more intriguing names. 

Take canasta, for example, which has become one of the most popular rummy games ever. It’s called canasta because canasta means “basket” in Spanish, which refers to the basket (though it doesn’t have to be a literal basket) in the middle of the table containing discarded cards that you can use to make melds (sets of cards in a sequence or of the same kind). 

ace of spade playing card

Then there’s rummy 500, which is not some sort of mix between rummy and motor racing, but refers, very simply, to the amount of points you need to score to win. Kalooki or kalooki rummy, in the meantime, is a rummy variant from Jamaica, and though the roots of its name aren’t known, what’s strange is that there is yet another Jamaican variant of rummy called kaluki, which has completely different rules.

Whatever the case may be, it’s amazing how complicated the history of rummy and its variants actually is for such a seemingly simple, straightforward card game. And this doesn’t even get into Rummikub, which was developed in Israel by a Holocaust survivor after World War 2, and the different names it has gone by (Rummy-O, Rummikid) over the years or that it was developed in three different editions, American, Israeli and International (Israeli or sabra rules are now the default).

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