What’s the origin of the suit designations on playing cards?

Dear Cecil:

Hearts and diamonds I understand from Mike Jordan's song. Clubs look enough like clovers to satisfy me. But for understanding what spades are and why these four were chosen in the first place, I'm writing to you. I just bet you know.

Cecil replies:

Safe bet, toots. Although sounding like you know everything is not that hard when you get to pick the questions. It’s not like I’m going to start a column saying, “Sorry, babe, I have no clue.”

The French invented the suit designations we use today. Each supposedly indicates one of the principal divisions of medieval society: the heart, coeur, the clergy; the club, trefle, the peasants; the diamond, carreau, merchants and tradesman; and the sword, pique, the nobility. Espada, the Spanish equivalent of the French pique, has become our present day spade.

The symbolic significance of the nobleman’s sword is obvious enough, but some of the other associations are a little obscure. Clubs can be interpreted into two ways: as walking-sticks or cudgels, the characteristics weapons of the lower class, who were frequently forbidden to own swords; or as clover leaves, indicating agriculture. Hearts symbolize courage and virtue, which presumably would pertain to the clergy, the highest level of society. The diamond apparently was originally a paving tile, indicating the artisan-tradesman group, purveyors of material goods. Alternatively, there is the obvious connection between diamonds and money. The early Italian designations, from which the French derive, are a little clearer: cups (the clergyman’s chalice); swords; clubs or batons; and money. The Germans originally used hearts, acorns, bells, and leaves, which you occasionally still see in Eastern Europe. God knows what they stand for, but you didn’t ask, so I won’t have to make something up.

Why did the French symbols become so popular? Well, they have that indefinable French cachet, I suppose. But undoubtedly the main thing is that they were easy to recognize and easy to draw.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

Comment on this Column