What Does House of Cards Mean?

Fall Like a House of Cards Meaning

Definition: An unstable or weak structure or plan.

Origin of House of Cards

Likening a precarious structure to a house of cards has been around for centuries. This idea started in the Middle Ages in Europe and earlier in China.

An elegant use of the phrase, although far from an early example, can be seen in John Milton’s 1641 Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline:

  • Painted Battlements of Prelarty, which want but one puff of the King’s to blow them down like a past-board House built of Court-Card.

The allusion here is obvious and quite literal, referring to a deck of playing cards. It is possible to stack playing cards in such a way that the cards form a tall tower. The cards in this tower are not flat, but rather standing up on their edge. The structure is layered, or tiered, in form. Although this tower can look tall and impressive, a slight breeze or jostle will send the entire thing into ruins.

The figurative meaning keeps this imagery. An organization or an endeavor might seem grand or stable at first glance, but it could collapse at any moment.

Examples of House of Cards

house of cards definitionHere is an example of two family members using the expression while at home.

Grandmother: What’s the matter? You seem upset.

Granddaughter: I’m upset because of my relationship with my boyfriend. I thought we would be together forever because of our mutual love of science fiction. However, we just had a huge fight, and now I feel like we have almost nothing in common. Our whole relationship is a house of cards. I’m not even sure if we’ll still be together by tomorrow.

Grandmother: Well, if your relationship is that unstable, then maybe it is for the best that it is ending.

house of cards expressionThe second dialogue shows a father and his daughter discussing the father’s job.

Father: I don’t want to worry you unnecessarily, but I may need to find another job soon.

Daughter: What’s going on?

Father: When I first got this job I thought the company was well respected and established in the business world. However, I just learned that one of the CEO’s has been embezzling, and the company could go bankrupt at any moment.

Daughter: Is it certain that that will happen?

Father: No, but the whole company is like a house of cards right now. Any little problem could cause it to collapse.

More Examples

This excerpt is speculation about what a football coach may or may not think.

  • Coach John Fox thinks that his team is a house of cards or that Mike Glennon is incapable of processing the truth without doing himself physical harm or that Bears fans are idiots. –Chicago Sun Times

This excerpt is about the possibility of a baseball team failing.

  • You know what else is possible? The Cubs could collapse like a house of cards. Speaking of dramatic. –Chicago Sun Times

Summary

The expression house of cards describes a fragile situation that could collapse at any moment.

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