Above board

And the company jet is for when I have to look something up at the Cancun Public Library.

Dear Word Detective: A vendor of ours assured us (or tried to) that his company is operating “above board.” What is the origin of “above board”? — Chris.

This is really about the bonuses, isn’t it? Won’t you people ever stop? This whole thing is an enormous, gargantuan, obscenely bloated misunderstanding. We columnists were promised those bonuses years ago, probably long before any of you whiners were born. And if it weren’t for the promise of those teensy-tiny checks, we all probably would have jumped ship for some more lucrative occupation, perhaps dog-grooming, years ago. Besides, recent studies have shown that the average consumer doesn’t know the difference between a billion and a bullion, so what’s the problem? You have something against soup?


Not your friend.

But seriously, that’s a good question, and it raises another question about that vendor. As old Willie Shakespeare put it in a slightly different context, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Well, methinks that a vendor who is truly honest wouldn’t take such pains to proclaim his honesty. That’s reminiscent of the waiter who asks, “OK, which one of you ordered the clean glass?”

“Above board” means, of course, “open, fair, candid, honest and forthright,” or, in the word of the moment, “transparent.” Dealings that are “above board” are rigorously legal, legitimate and open to inspection. Nobody “knows a guy who knows a guy” and nothing “fell off a truck” when everything is truly “above board.”

“Above board” first appeared in print, as far as is known, in the late 16th century, and the phrase originated in the world of gambling, in particular card games. To play “above board” was to keep your cards above the level of the playing table (as opposed to down in your lap) so as to avoid any suspicion of cheating. The “board” in the phrase is simply an old use of “board,” common at the time, to mean “table.” The same sense of “board” is also found in “boardroom,” originally just a room with a large table around which a governing council or the like met. Eventually the term was extended to the group itself, which is why corporations today have a “Board” of Directors. “Board” was also extended to mean “dining table” and the food found there, which gave us “room and board” (room plus meals) and “boarding house,” where your rent covers both your room and at least some of your meals.

Interestingly, the “open, honest” sense of “above board” we use today is a figurative use of the gambling term, but it appeared almost simultaneously with the first appearance of the literal sense, which is unusually rapid for such a transformation. I guess the world was just waiting for a better way to say “I am not a crook.”

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