Two Little Ducks! All About Bingo Calls and Their Origins

16th January 2023
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Two Little Ducks! All About Bingo Calls and Their Origins

If you’ve ever visited a bingo hall, you’ll probably know how the game works – the bingo caller will shout out the numbers as they’re generated, while players hurry to mark their cards accordingly. And if you played a game of land-based bingo, chances are you’re aware of the weird and wacky nicknames given to individual numbers as they are called out during a game – what insiders name “bingo calls”. 

Bingo calls (also known as “bingo lingo”) often make little sense to the uninitiated. How does the number 77 become "two hockey sticks"? Made up of a mixture of cultural references, cockney rhyming slang, and seemingly random nonsense phrases, it can be difficult to piece together how the bingo numbers relate to their slang names. 

So, what are the different number calls you might hear while playing bingo, and how did they get their names? Read on as we shed light on the most popular British bingo calls, and what on Earth they mean!


Where did bingo calls come from? 

Like many things in the bingo world, the origins of bingo calls are pretty mysterious. The game itself had its start in Europe in the 16th Century, where it first popped up in the form of an Italian lottery game. Bingo bounced around Europe over the next few hundred years, evolving as it did so until it started to resemble the game we know today sometime during the early 20th Century. 

As for bingo calls, it’s not clear exactly when or how they came about, although we do know that they started to gain widespread popularity during the 1950s. It’s been speculated that bingo calls first cropped up during games of Housey Housey, once a game pastime enjoyed by the British soldiers in the 1930s, and one of bingo’s many past evolutions.

In the UK, bingo first became popular amongst army and navy troops, and the list of bingo calls is indeed peppered with military slang. Take “Kelly’s eye”, which is called for the number 1; this is supposedly a reference to Ned Kelly’s helmet, which had an eye slot resembling the solo digit.

The British military isn’t the only point of reference that can be found in bingo terminology, however. Some nicknames take inspiration from films, songs, and even politics. Some numbers get their names from their shape, supposedly resembling objects or people (some ruder than others, as you’ll soon find out!)

Cockney rhyming slang – a style of speech where the speaker replaces a common word with a rhyming word or phrase – is likewise a key inspiration to many unusual bingo calls. Rhyming slang is thought to have originated in London’s East End in the 19th Century. Early versions of bingo were played often in Victorian London, so it would make sense that some cockney lingo has made its way into the bingo lexicon.

 

What are the most common bingo calls?

There’s no official list of bingo calls – number nicknames can vary from place to place and change over time. However, there are certainly a few calls that have sticking power, having been around for several decades.

While many of the calls are simply routed in rhyming slang, some of them have much more interesting origins. So, without further ado, here is a list of the most common British bingo calls and their meanings:

  

  • Number 1 – “Kelly’s Eye”. Said to be UK military slang, “Kelly’s eye” supposedly refers to Ned Kelly’s helmet. The long, thin eye slot was said to look like the number 1. 
  • Number 2 – “One little duck”. This number got its nickname from its shape. The number 2 resembles a duck bobbing on the water. If you’re struggling to see it, think of a rubber duck with its beak pointing to the left. Sometimes, players will respond to the caller with a “quack quack!” when this number is called!
  • Number 3 – “Cup of tea”. As you might guess, this one comes from cockney rhyming slang, which is commonly used with bingo calls. Another name sometimes used for 3 is “one little flea”, supposedly because the number looks a bit like a flea.
  • Number 4 – “Knock at the door”. Another one that uses cockney rhyming slang. The phrase “knock at the door” comes from the well-known nursery rhyme One, Two Buckle My Shoe.
  • Number 5 – “Man alive”. More rhyming slang. It’s not clear where this phrase originally came from. It’s been claimed that it was once used at sea when sailors would encounter shipwrecks, but nowadays it’s used as an expression of surprise and joy.
  • Number 6 – “Half a dozen”. Not much to explain here – half a dozen is another way of saying six of something. Sometimes, bingo callers will refer to 6 as “Tom Mix”, an American actor who started in Western films. 
  • Number 7 – “Lucky”. The number 7 is considered lucky by many (but whether it will bring you luck in bingo is up for debate!).
  • Number 8– “Garden gate”. Another phrase used because it rhymes. In the past, the number 8 was widely referred to as “one fat lady, as it supposedly looks like the two halves of a fat woman. Many bingo halls are moving away from this language, however, in efforts to make the game more inclusive.
  • Number 9 – “Doctor’s orders”. During the Second World War, number 9 was a colloquial term for a laxative pill issued by doctors in the army! Supposedly, 9pm was the cut-off time for visiting the medic’s tent.
  • Number 10 – “Prime minister’s den”. This call is named after number 10 Downing Street, where the Prime Minister of the UK resides.
  • Number 11 – “Legs eleven”. This call references the shape of the number eleven, which is said to look like a pair of legs. 
  • Number 12 - "One dozen". Twelve of something is commonly referred to as a dozen.
  • Number 13 – “Unlucky for some”. The number 13 is considered to be unlucky in some cultures. 
  • Number 14 - "Valentine's Day". This number gets its name from St Valentine's Day, which is celebrated on the 14th February. 
  • Number 15 - "Young and keen". Cockney rhyming slang again!
  • Number 16 - "Never been kissed". This nickname comes from the 1930s pop song Sweet Sixteen and Never Been Kissed.
  • Number 17 – “Dancing Queen” (young and sweet, only seventeen!) This one references the hit ABBA song of the same name. 
  • Number 18 – “Coming of age”. In the UK, 18 is the age we are considered to enter adulthood. 
  • Number 19 - "Goodbye teens". The nineteenth year is the final year of being a teenager.
  • Number 20 - "One score". A group of twenty of something is often referred to as a "score".
  • Number 21 – “Royal salute”. A royal salute is a traditional military custom where 21 guns are fired to honour a head of state or government. 
  • Number 22 – “Two little ducks”. Similar to number 2, 22 resembles a pair of ducks positioned side by side, pointing their beaks to the left. How cute!
  • Number 23 - "The Lord is My Shepherd". This bingo call has biblical origins. Number 23 gets its name from the 23rd psalm in the Old Testament.
  • Number 24 - "Two dozen". This one is pretty simple - two lots of a dozen equal 24.
  • Number 25 – “Duck and dive”. The call comes from combining the number 2, which looks like a duck, and the number 5, which resembles a snake (which you would dive out of the way of!). 
  • Number 26 - "Half a crown". Before there was the pound, the UK had crowns. A half crown was equal to two shillings and one sixpence (pronounced "two and six").
  • Number 27 - "Gateway to heaven". More cockney rhyming slang.
  • Number 28 - "In a state".
  • Number 29 - "Rise and shine".
  • Number 30 – “Dirty Gertie”. Depending on who you ask, Dirty Gertie could reference a 1940s film, a London statue or a rude song sung by the military during World War 2.
  • Number 31 - "Get up and run".
  • Number 32 - "Buckle my shoe". Like with 4, the number 32 gets its name from the nursey rhyme One, Two Buckle My Shoe.
  • Number 33 - "All the threes". Double threes = all the threes! This number can also be referred to as "fish, chips and peas" - a quintessential British dish
  • Number 34 - "Ask for more".
  • Number 35 - "Jump and jive". This number is named after the dance style that originated in America in the 1930s.
  • Number 36 - "Three dozen". Three of a dozen equals 36.
  • Number 37 - "More than 11". 
  • Number 38 - "Christmas cake".
  • Number 39 - "Steps". This number takes its name from the 1935 Hitchcock film The 39 Steps.
  • Number 40 – “Life begins”. Taken from the well-known phrase “life begins at 40”.
  • Number 41 - "Time for fun". 
  • Number 42 - "Winnie the Pooh". This rhyming phrase is named after the beloved children's book character Winnie the Pooh!
  • Number 43 - "Down on your knees".
  • Number 44 - "Droopy drawers". Supposedly, two of the number 4 side by side resembles baggy underwear falling down someone's legs!
  • Number 45 – “Halfway there”. Half of 90, 45 is exactly halfway to the highest number in the game. Sometimes, 45 is referred to as "stayin' alive", after the well-known Bee Gees song.
  • Number 46 - "Up to tricks".
  • Number 47 - "Four and seven".
  • Number 48 - "Four dozen". You know the drill by now: 4 x 12 = 48.
  • Number 49 - "PC". This refers to the British crime radio series The Adventures of PC 49, which was later developed into a film of the same name.
  • Number 50 - "It's a bullseye". Hit the inner red circle on a dart board and you'll earn yourself a bullseye, worth 50 points.
  • Number 77 – “Two hockey sticks”. The number 77 looks a little like a pair of hockey sticks flipped upside down! It’s sometimes called 
  • Number 89 - "Almost there". Just one away from 90, 89 is nearly (but not quite) the top of the bingo numbers.
  • Number 90 – “Top of the shop”. The number 90 is, of course, the highest number available in a game of 90-ball bingo. 


Moving with the times

Some bingo calls might date back over half a century, but they aren't static entities. They're constantly evolving alongside popular culture, and thanks to the good old internet, new nicknames are spreading more widely than ever before.

Here are some of the best new nicknames that have appeared on the scene in recent years:

  • Number 8 – “Gareth Gates”. First appearing on Pop Idol back in the 2000s, Gareth Gates is the British singer known for the hit single Spirit in The Sky.
  • Number 22 – “I don’t know about you”. Another musical one, referencing the Taylor Swift song 22.
  • Number 25 – “Adele”. This pays tribute to iconic British singer, Adele, whose third album is named called 25.
  • Number 52 – “Chicken vindaloo”. Originating from Goa, this Indian dish has become a British curry house classic.

 

Why do we have bingo calls?

Aside from the fact that they’re great fun, bingo calls have proved themselves quite useful in the bingo hall. Often, players will gather in their hundreds to play land-based bingo, and it can be quite difficult to hear the caller in such a large space. Having recognisable nicknames for numbers makes it easier for players to hear what’s being called, and it also provides a few valuable seconds for players to frantically mark off their cards!

If you’re a frequent bingo hall goer, you’ll know that the process of drawing and calling out numbers can be quite time-consuming (this was especially true before the advent of the electronic bingo caller). Bingo calls help add an injection of fun to the proceedings, too.  


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