In the Cards or On the Cards – Idiom, Meaning and Origin

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

On the cards means something is likely to happen, and here’s a plot twist—in the cards conveys the same meaning. Despite their similarity, they have subtle differences that can leave you scratching your head.

If you’ve ever muddled up the two, it might have been in the cards for that to happen, or should I say, on the cards?

Idioms like on the cards and in the cards hold a special place in the English language. They are expressions that don’t have a literal meaning but are used to convey abstract ideas or concepts. Understanding idioms is vital for grasping the nuances of the language.

This article talks about the true definition of in the cards and its origin and shows you how to use it in a sentence with examples.

In the Cards and on the Cards Meaning Explained

In the Cards or On the Cards – Idiom Meaning and Origin

The expressions in the cards and on the cards describe something that will probably happen, something destined to come to pass. These expressions go beyond mere possibilities, suggesting an almost predetermined or destined outcome.

For example, two coworkers have been demonstrating a great deal of chemistry and camaraderie. A colleague might remark, “I think a collaboration between those two is definitely on the cards.” This suggests that their teaming up isn’t just a vague possibility but an expected and logical next step.

In essence, when we use these phrases, we communicate a combination of observation, intuition, and anticipation about a future event or outcome.

Is It in the Cards or on the Cards?

Both are correct. In the cards is popular in North American English, and on the cards is the British counterpart. It’s one of those subtle transatlantic differences, like elevator vs. lift. Both idioms have the same meaning but are wrapped in different cultural packaging.

In the Cards Idiom Origin and Etymology

On the Cards vs. In the Cards Ngram
On the cards and in the cards usage trend.

The idiom in the cards or on the cards traces its roots to the ancient divination practice of cartomancy, where fortunes were foretold using cards, such as tarot cards. In this tradition, if an event or outcome was said to be in the cards, it was predicted based on the arrangement and interpretation of the cards.

The idiom exists in two variations: in the cards and on the cards. The former suggests that the fortune is revealed by the narrative or story depicted by the cards. In contrast, on the cards is more literal, pointing to the actual images or symbols present on the card surfaces.

Historical records indicate that on the cards was in circulation as early as the late 1500s. However, the variation in the cards emerged later, around the 1700s.

Not in the Cards and on the Cards Synonyms

  • Not meant to be
  • Not in one’s stars
  • Out of the question
  • Not in the pipeline
  • Off the table

Examples of in the Cards and on the Cards in a Sentence

In the Cards or On the Cards – Idiom Meaning and Origin 1

  • Moving to Europe has always been on the cards for Bella.
  • Considering his recent performance, a promotion for Ted might be in the cards.
  • If she keeps up her training, an Olympic gold might be in the cards for her.
  • Based on today’s weather forecast, rain is definitely on the cards.
  • I hope a nice, long holiday is in the cards for us soon!
  • If I keep working toward my goals, landing a six-figure book deal is in the cards for my future.

Pick a Card, Any Card

Whether you think something is on the cards or in the cards, remember you’re dealing with two idioms that are two sides of the same card. So, now you can play your idiom card right, depending on which side of the pond you’re on. And be sure to shuffle through my other idiom guides found on our site!