A mystery surrounds the etymology or origin of the phrase, raise the stakes. Of course, the meaning is clear. It’s what you do in poker when you bet more. And in fiction writing–my trade–it means an increase in what your protagonist stands to lose or gain.
Poker players raise the stakes often, but rarely ask where the expression comes from. If you look it up, you’ll be pointed toward the Medieval stake used to tie someone to, just before burning them to death. Yikes.
To be burned at the stake doesn’t seem to be a good analogy for betting, so some experts suggest that the expression could have come from American colonists who staked land out West in order to lay claim to it. But this ignores the problem that early instances of the expression predate Colonization of the Wild West.
I want to digress. What about the expression, red herring, also a literary device? Experts point to the old English practice of dragging a red, or smoked, herring on a string behind a horse to make a scent trail to simulate fox hunting. The story is that they used to train their hounds that way.
However, this story is not entirely inaccurate. The hounds weren’t supposed to follow the scent of the fish. Rather they were supposed to follow the fox’s scent. Trainers taught them not to get distracted by the herring dragged across the fox’s trail.
I mention red herrings–common in murder mystery plots–for two reasons. It illustrated that origin stories for expressions are not always right. That might be the case with raise the stakes. Red herrings–distracting, false clues–can occur in the search for word origins too, and I had a feeling that the Medieval burning of people at the stake was a red herring.
I asked myself what other root could better explain our modern expression.
And that’s what led me to think harder about the word stake itself. In etymology, one of the things they think about is whether spelling has changed. Sometimes you find yourself chasing the wrong spelling back through the centuries.
In the spirit of open-minded inquiry, I considered that when you gamble, it’s about what you might be able to take away in winnings. What if stakes was originally takes?
A search for the origin of take directs you to the old Norse word, taka. The meaning is right! But of course, it lacks an s. Where could that s have come from?
On a hunch, I then looked up the origin of the word mistake. It’s from mistaka, meaning taken in error–also Norse. Now I had a possible source of the mysterious s. What if the expression is based on takes or takings, the gains from gambling—not stakes, the wooden things witches were tied to?
However, a reasonable person might point out that most of our words come from Old English, French, or Latin, while very few have Norse origins.
Yes, but the verb in our expression raise the stakes is also from Old Norse: reisa. I’ll bet the expression came to us whole cloth from reisa taka–either by way of mistaka to gain an s, or by way of a dropped final syllable in reisa, making it reis taka. But now I’m out of my depth. This is the sort of thing you need an etymologist for.
As for the story, that’s more up my alley as a novelist. I can imagine marauding Vikings found it appealing to raid wealthy villages where there were more takings. Or maybe they played some sort of gambling game in which they used the expression like we do.
And I do like the idea that gamblers today are channeling a little bit of old Viking spirit when they raise the stakes.
As a writer, not a word sleuth, this is as far as my investigations go. But it was fun to follow clues, avoid red herrings, and come up with a possible new solution to this word mystery.
Now I’ll get back to my real work, in which I relentlessly raise the stakes (or takes and mistakes) on my main characters while sneaking the occasional red herring across the page to make sure their journey will not be an easy one.
Alex Hiam is the author of the Silent Lee adventures (available on Amazon in paperback or kindle) and he also teaches writing and literature to middle and high schoolers.