Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

In the 1800s, street gangs didn’t have guns. They used cloth bags or socks filled with sand as homemade weapons to conk people over the head with so they could steal their money and their goods. The next technological evolution was the blackjack. Also referred to as a cosh in England and a sap in the U.S., a blackjack was a lead weight sewed into a flexible leather club, pocket-sized for easy concealment. 

The term sandbag was adopted by poker players to describe someone who would pretend to have a bad hand when he had a good one. This would lure other players into continuing to bet, fattening the pot for the sandbagger who quietly held a powerful but hidden hand. In golf, sandbagging is deliberately misrepresenting yourself as a person of lesser ability to gain an unfair advantage and improve your chances of winning. You do it by manipulating the handicap system.

Handicapping is applying unequal rules to make the outcome more equal

If you are a good tennis player, you’re going to whip me every time we play when I’m not as fast as you, so I can’t cover as much of the court. When I’m not as strong as you, while you fire bullets at me, I patty-cake shots back at you – if I’m lucky – that you drill down my throat. Plus, tennis is not my game.

Because the playing field is so tilted your way, you’re going to win every time and there’s not a bit of fun in that for me. But in golf, people with different skill levels can compete against in each other by giving the one with the lesser ability a head start. 

The opposite of giving someone a head start is making sure everyone has the same chance

The notion is the same as when you play games with little kids. They can’t beat you, so you make it easier for them by relaxing the rules to give them a chance. If you were to race little kids, you’d have to let them have a head start to level the playing field. You might give them such a big head start that they win.

By leveling the playing field, you are giving all contestants a fair chance by making sure they are all playing under the same set of conditions

When a playing field is tilted (few are perfectly level), the team going downhill has a built-in advantage over the team having to play uphill. This is why in modern futbol and football, teams switch sides at halftime. Leveling the playing field is closely tied to the term on the level.

On the level

The term originated with the Freemasons, who likened moral qualities to stone cutting. The square symbolizes square dealing, and the carpenter’s level symbolizes fairness and equality.

  • The level was an instrument used by builders to ensure horizontal and vertical surfaces were true.
  • The square was an instrument used to determine accurate 90-degree angles so rooms, walls and floors wouldn’t be built lopsided. 


To be aboveboard is to be free from all traces of deceit. In poker, deception is part of the skilled gambler’s game – ask Amarillo Slim. Unscrupulous cheats would hold their cards in their laps beneath the table where the other card players couldn’t see them and surreptitiously switch them for better ones. Card players who kept their hands aboveboard were deemed to be without concealment, dishonesty or fraud.

If you are on the up, you are honest, legal and reputable

One origin story says railroads labeled the work papers of favored men in such a way that if the text and watermark were both printed upright, those men would be hired. Undesirables’ papers would be stamped with upside-down watermarks that indicated they were not to be hired. 

Another explanation is that to be on the up and up is two earn two thumbs pointed upward to indicate approval.

In movies set in ancient Rome, the emperor gave gladiators a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down gesture. Today we think thumbs up is approval and thumbs down is rejection, but it used to be the other way around. The mixup occurred when a famous painting got it wrong. 

Why do we say thumbs (plural) up when the gesture is one-handed? 

In the jargon of United States astronauts in the 1960s, the thumbs-up sign means means A-OK: all (is) okay. Yes, that’s John Glenn, U.S. Navy test pilot, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth and a U.S. Senator from Ohio.


Room and board is not the same as a room and a board. A board is a piece of timber sawn flat, longer than it is wide and wider than it is thick. For centuries board was a word meaning table. Around about 1400, it meant a large table for communal dining. The board that goes with your room is the “table,” meaning your meals.

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