The Strange History of Bingo Calls

  • Updated
  • By Harry Harris
Bingo Calls

Online bingo may be a game played mostly in silence, but chances are when the numbers come up, you’ll still hear the calls somewhere in the back of your head.

Such is the history of the game, with many of these calls dating back centuries.

The influence of the Army

Look down a list of bingo calls and one thing everyone will notice is a lot of military references. One theory is that the British Navy learned the game from the Maltese in 1814, and thought it was perfect for their downtime.

By the end of the 1800s, the whole armed forces were playing bingo regularly, and it’s from here that we get a lot of calls that have stuck around to this day.

51 and 52 are both named after their respective Army divisions, The Highland Div and The Lowland Div, with 53 occasionally called The Welsh Div too.

For the same reason, 28 was named The Old Braggs, a nickname for the 28th North Gloucestershire Regiment, and 88 was christened The Connaught Rangers, an Irish infantry previously known as the 88th Regiment of Foot.

The Navy were able to put their own stamp on the calls too. 62 to Waterloo refers to the cost of the fare from Portsmouth to Waterloo station, 6/2.

59 is also a reference to a trip to the coast – the number 59 being the bus route from London to Brighton.

A touch of movie glamour

The military in-jokes are really just scratching the surface of what bingo calls refer to though, and really the variation of references across the calls is proof of bingo’s popularity with people from all walks of life.

For instance, film and TV are common reference points. When bingo callers shout Here Comes Herbie for 53, they’re talking about the famous Walt Disney car, which had 53 displayed on its bonnet, and 49 gets the name P.C because of a wartime radio show about Police Constable Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby – P.C. 49.

Popular entertainers Danny La Rue and Jack Benny both get their own number, 52 and 39, as do The Beatles (64), and English ghost story writer Henry James, with 62 named after his famous story The Turn Of The Screw.

Modern twists on old classics

Of course, bingo callers are not restricted to history, and often improvise on the spot. In the East End of London, Cockney rhyming slang was used for many of the calls, including some of the ones already mentioned.

However, language shifts over time, and only a couple of years ago, Mecca Bingo decided to revamp some of their bingo calls, to make them more relevant to a 21st-century audience.

So, number 8 changed from Garden Gate to Tinder Date, and number 17 is now a Selfie Queen, not a Dancing Queen — as if people these days don’t know who Abba are?!

Are bingo calls really so odd?

It might seem very strange, one simple game creating a language that spans a huge section of culture, but bingo is not alone. All sports create their own language, and sometimes that language becomes used in everyday life.

People who give up on something are accused of “throwing in the towel,” which comes from boxing.

Someone who is particularly alert might be said to be “keeping their eye on the ball,” and if you’re not performing to the best of your ability, well, you’re "below par".

Part of a club

What this kind of language does is help players or fans feel like they’re in it together, like they’re part of a club.

Even playing online bingo, you know you’re one of thousands who get a real joy out of playing the game, and in that respect, not much has changed since the days of the 1800s.

And what is that down to? Simplicity. Bingo is a game everyone can understand, and so are bingo calls.

They aren’t complicated puzzles needing to be solved, they were designed as instantly recognisable gags that would appeal to the masses, and the fact that so many are still in use is true proof that that’s still the case.