Most American children grew up singing a song about a dog named “Bingo.” The key part of the song is spelling out the dog’s name, letter by letter, and here are the lyrics:
There was a farmer had a dog
And Bingo was his name-o.
And Bingo was his name-o
It’s not great poetry but it’s a lot of fun to shout out! Bingo is in the news this week because the dog was mentioned in a U.S. Supreme Court dissent by Chief Justice John Roberts. At issue in the case was whether electronic bingo–with gambling–was permitted on tribal lands in the state of Texas. Texas state law regulates bingo games but doesn’t prohibit them, and the Supreme Court decided that bingo could be played on sovereign tribal lands. In his dissent, Roberts said “the electronic bingo played at the Speaking Rock Entertainment Center is about as close to real bingo as Bingo the famous dog.” (The actual bingo game has a card with 25 squares, 5 by 5, and the first person to get five in a row wins.)
This story led Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Zimmer to look into the history of the word bingo.* It turns out that it’s a story of group genius, of emergence and collaboration over time. And guess what? The song came even before the well-known game. It was an adult song about drinking–not an uncommon source of musical creativity. (The Star Spangled Banner, anyone?) Zimmer found sheet music from 1780 with these lyrics:
“The farmer loved a cup of good ale, he called it rare good stingo.”
Other variations were used in college fight songs. I hope I have time to look up those lyrics!
Starting in the 1870s, children played a game by singing a version of this song and clapping. In around 1903, the word “bingo” was also used to describe something sudden and unexpected. Today, we often say it when someone gets the right answer.
Somewhere in the 1900s or 1910s, a gambling game emerged through a separate historical process. It was called by many names–lotto, keeno, housey-housey. In 1922, a Pittsburgh businessman named Hugh J. Ward developed a version of this game and named it “bingo” because the song was well-known and he thought it was a catchy word. The game was played using kernels of corn to mark your spaces and it was also called “the corn game.” It was common a traveling carnivals. Around 1940, a toy manufacturer named Edwin Lowe saw the game at a carnival in Atlanta and started mass producing the games. It caught on through the 1940s and 1950s and, as they say, the rest is history.
This is a great example of what I call group genius–when innovations emerge from a distributed and collective process. No one person is “the inventor” of Bingo. It went through many steps, many zigs and zags, with many people and communities playing a role. With innovations like this, the “creator” is a complex social process with innumerable contributors.
*Ben Zimmer, “A song for kids that became a grown-up game.” WSJ, Saturday, June 25, 2022.