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What Does "in the Cards" Mean?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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The English language idiom, “in the cards,” is a phrase that English speakers use to indicate whether or not something is likely to happen; a synonym for “in the cards” would be “likely.” The phrase can be used in either a positive or negative way. Something that is “in the cards” is likely, where something that is “not in the cards” is less probable.

Reports on the origin of the phrase differ. It’s commonly assumed that the phrase, “in the cards,” came from a metaphor to physical cards. Specifically, the phrase most likely comes from the use of Tarot cards in predicting future outcomes.

The Tarot card deck is a very old set of cards with many variations, but with an underlying consistent set of images and associations. Some date the use of the Tarot deck back to ancient Egypt. Over time, the use of the Tarot deck evolved. While people still use Tarot cards to predict the future, others use a modern variant of the Tarot as playing cards. The impact of the Tarot deck on modern playing cards can be seen, for example, in the four suits of the conventional deck.

In Tarot readings, professionals lay out a series of cards and attempt to use them to either get insight into a person’s character, to tell their future, or both. These readings are supported by a body of knowledge that has been accumulated over the centuries. Many people believe in the predictive power of the Tarot, which has led to the popularity of saying that something is or is not “in the cards.” In some communities, though, the Tarot is banned because of religious principles, and here, English speakers may not be very likely to use the phrase “in the cards” to describe the likelihood of an event.

For those who are unfamiliar with the phrase, it’s important to note that the phrase is most usually used by someone who is not accustomed to using Tarot cards. Rather than being an actual prediction based on divination, the phrase simply expresses someone’s opinion about whether something is likely to happen. Speakers or writers might use actual facts about current events to support the idea that something is or is not “in the cards.” For example, this kind of language is not uncommon in journalism, and even in the headlines of major opinion pieces about likely outcomes in the business or financial world, or in any other topical area.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By ZsaZsa56 — On Jan 16, 2012

In the cards was one of my dad's favorite expressions and it would drive me crazy when he would use it. Whenever I would ask for something, a new toy or a trip to Disney world or ice cream or whatever he would say "Sorry honey, that's not in the cards."

So I always associate that phrase with not getting what you want. I love my dad and I don't mean to sound spoiled or anything, but that phrase has a special place in my brain.

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