The truth behind bingo calls – why did the doctor order number nine, and who exactly is Dirty Gertie?

The world of bingo calls is a weird and wonderful one. There’s a rich and colourful history to many of them – and curious stories to some of the most obscure.

Of course, with the rise of online bingo, playing bingo in old-fashioned bingo halls is dying out. Although there used to be over 600 dedicated bingo halls in UK towns and cities, that’s gone down to under 400 now. Instead over three million people every year now play bingo online (that’s almost 5% of the population)!

bingo balls

Although it might seem like a shame for some bingo traditions to die out, there are some advantages to bingo becoming a mainstream online pastime; providers like Titan Bingo have come up with innovative new versions, giving them themes like Deal or No Deal, and even Britain’s Got Talent!

So there are definitely interesting advances in the world of modern day bingo, but we shouldn’t forget the rich history bingo has. It’s actually been around since the 1500s, and is now played in various forms around the world. Many countries have their own unique take on the game, including each country having different bingo ‘calls’ – the slang terms used to represent each of the numbers being drawn.

But where did those traditional bingo calls come from? Well, some are straight-forward enough rhyming slang; cup of tea, number three and tickety-boo, sixty two are some of the obvious examples of this. Others are more onomatopoeic, (clickety-click sixty six) or make reference to stars of the stage and screen; the number six becomes Tom Mix, the star of many silent era western films, and seventy two is named for Danny La Rue, the drag entertainer.

Several of the most traditional bingo calls have a military history, including one of the most obscure; doctor’s orders, number nine. The origins of this call come from the habit medical officers adopted in World War II, of writing prescriptions by number. The poor conditions and lack of variation in diet meant that constipation was common amongst men in the trenches, and the solution was a laxative; prescription number nine.

Trombones, seventy six is named for the military parade tune commonly played by marching bands. Presumably large ones, if they had that big a brass section! Dirty Gertie also has musical military associations – the rhyming slang for thirty, it comes from a bawdy song often sung by the Allied soldiers deployed in North Africa.

Other rhymes reference popular culture – such as thirty five the jump and jive, after the dance move. Another cultural reference comes from the only bingo call which changes from time to time, number ten. Named after the most famous number ten in British culture, the prime minister’s home in London. The call changes to name the current prime minister; Dave’s den – number ten.

Although it’s rare for the exact time a bingo call came into existence to be known, number 52 (chicken vindaloo) is known to have originated from a Butlin’s holiday camp in 2003 – possibly due to some kind of confusion over a restaurant order (possibly not…). Another food related call is number 57, which is usually recognised as ‘Heinz Beans’ – not for the beans themselves, but for Heinz’s famous slogan, explaining that there are 57 varieties of Heinz produce.

heinz beans

Although bingo is popular with both genders, many of the bingo calls certainly sounds like they’ve been made up by men, legs eleven, being a prime example for this. Two fat ladies are of course 88 – again this is based on the shape of the numbers. You might be puzzled to hear a shout of ‘stop farting’ echoing through the hall – although you should in fact be crossing off number 83, with the 8 thought to resemble a bottom, while the 3 is the escaping gas…

If you understand pre-decimalised British currency, you might also understand the reference to ‘was she worth it?’ for the number seventy six (an alternative to the trombones!). In old money, 7 and 6 was the cost of a marriage license – so the typical response from the crowd in a bingo hall, was ‘every penny!’ when the question was called out.

If you’re looking for something more philosophical, you might prefer Gandhi’s breakfast, number eighty (8 – ate, 0 – nothing). Or even ‘unlucky for some’ thirteen and lucky seven – which are common across many different cultures.

So there you have it – just a few of the intriguing and downright odd reasons behind some of the classic British bingo calls. No matter how advanced and high-tech the game of bingo becomes in the future, it’s always worth remembering a few of these classically British terms, and the origins of bingo.