Updated: Aug 14
'Raising the stakes' is, at least to us writers, a potent literary device that often serves to pump up plots. Like a poker game in which the stakes are getting dangerously high, a plot with high stakes makes for an edge-of-the-seat experience. As a writer and a teacher, I like to talk with my students about how a good story keeps raising the stakes to make the protagonist more committed with each new chapter.
Sometimes it's also fun to stop and ask from whence these literary terms come. It's likely that good plots have been raising the stakes by adding new challenges for a lot longer than we've been calling it that.
A mystery surrounds the etymology or origin of the phrase, raise the stakes. If you look it up, you’ll be pointed toward the Medieval stake used to tie someone to just before burning them to death. Yikes.
To be burned at the stake doesn’t seem to be a good analogy for betting or plotting, so some experts suggest that the expression could have come from American colonists who staked land out West in order to lay claim to it. But this ignores the problem that early instances of the expression predate Colonization of the West.
I want to digress. What about the expression, red herring, also a literary device? Experts point to the old English practice of dragging a red, or smoked, herring on a string behind a horse to make a scent trail to simulate fox hunting. The story is that they used to train their hounds that way.
However, this story is not entirely accurate. The hounds weren’t supposed to follow the scent of the fish. Rather they were supposed to follow the fox’s scent. Trainers taught them not to get distracted by the herring dragged across the fox’s trail. Agatha Christie was good at getting us to follow the wrong scent, and then surprising us at the end with who the real villain is!
I mention red herrings–common in murder mystery plots–because it illustrates that origin stories for expressions are not always correct. That might be the case with raise the stakes. Red herrings–distracting, false clues–can occur in the search for word origins too, and I had a feeling that the Medieval burning of people at the stake was a red herring.
I asked myself what other root could better explain our modern expression?
And that’s what led me to think harder about the word stake itself. In etymology, one of the things they think about is whether spelling has changed. Sometimes you find yourself chasing the wrong spelling back through the centuries. And in this spirit, I considered that when you gamble, it’s about what you might be able to take away in winnings. What if stakes was originally takes?
A search for the origin of take directs you to the old Norse word, taka. The meaning is right! But of course, it lacks an s. Where could that s have come from?
On a hunch, I then looked up the origin of the word mistake. It’s from mistaka, taken in error–also Norse. Now I had a possible source of the mysterious s. What if the expression is based on takes or takings, the gains from gambling—not stakes, the wooden things witches were tied to?
However, a reasonable person might point out that most of our words come from Old English, French, or Latin, while only a few have Norse origins.
Yes, but the verb in 'raise the stakes' is also from Old Norse: reisa. I’ll bet the expression came to us whole cloth from reisa taka–either by way of mistaka to gain an s, or by way of a dropped final syllable in reisa, making it reis taka. But now I’m out of my depth. This is the sort of thing you need a professional etymologist for. Still, we got pretty far on the mystery, didn't we! I love to turn students on with such questions and let them peak under the hood of language and its evolution.
And I also like the idea that gamblers today are channeling a bit of old Viking spirit when they raise the stakes.
It's always fun to follow clues, avoid red herrings, and come up with a possible new solution to a word mystery. But now I better get back to my main job, in which I relentlessly raise the stakes (or takes and mistakes) on my characters, while sneaking the occasional red herring across the page to make sure their journey will not be an easy one!
Alex Hiam is the author of the Silent Lee adventures (available on Amazon in paperback or kindle) and he also teaches writing and literature to middle and high schoolers.