Play It As It Lays

“Palestinians try to dig out the remains of a security force officer from Hamas as he lays in the rubble following an Israeli missile strike on a building in Gaza City.”

The Huffington Post muffed it in this Dec. 28 photo caption*: that dead security officer lies in the rubble (although we hope not still). But Joan Didion got it right in the title of her 1970 novel (which I’ve borrowed for this post).

Surely, though, if  you lay a bet by laying chips on the table, the chips should lie where you’ve laid them? Here we’re deep into transitive / intransitive verb territory. In a nutshell, “lie” is an intransitive verb: something or someone lies somewhere. “Lie” describes what its subject is doing.

“Lay” is, generally speaking, a transitive verb, meaning it takes an object—its action continues across (trans) to a noun. “He laid the book on the table.” Sometimes though, it’s intransitive, describing what a hen or a gambler does.

“Play it as it lays” is a gambling (and golf) command that fits Didion’s novel about the daughter of a compulsive gambler. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997), via, offers a possible source for this usage in early 20th century slang, “let it lay,” meaning “leave it alone.”

A precise gambling usage is described in Yahoo! Answers by a self-proclaimed casino manager: “In casinos … if a customer places a bet and it’s not quite right, i.e., you put a bet on a split (17:1) on a roulette table but … it touches the corner (8:1), it will be played where it lays.”

It occurs to me that the golf usage, which refers to playing a ball that’s rolled into unfavorable terrain, could derive from the “lay of the land”. On a language forum, “virtdave” generalizes the command to mean “to accept the existing conditions when acting on a problem.”  He thinks it may have originated in golf.

Finally, “to lie” is recognized as a nonstandard usage of “lay” as an intransitive verb by The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2006, also via Which brings us back to the Huffington Post, and the question of whether, in this case, and perhaps in others, the difference between transitive and intransitive is gradually being blurred.

The confusion between “lie” and “lay” has a long history, dating back as far as the 14th century, according to The American Heritage Dictionary. Among other things, it points to “Now I lay me down to sleep,” a reflexive form that was once standard. Not to mention the fact that “lay” is the past tense of “lie,” and “lay down” sounds just like “laid down.”

That soldier laying in the rubble will never sound right to me, but it’s probably a losing battle.

*The Huffington Post story can still be read, but the photo and caption have been changed since I read it.

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One Response to “Play It As It Lays”

  1. Mike Says:

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