11 Playful Pieces of Pinball Slang


You might not know it, but it’s pinball season right now. Forty-one years ago this month, The Who's pinball rock-opera Tommy was released in the U.S., and in just a few weeks, the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association World Championships will be taking place in Carnegie, Pennsylvania.

Pinball in one variation or another has existed since at least the 19th century, with spring-loaded bagatelle devices. (Bagatelle is a billiard-like table game where players try to maneuver balls around wooden pegs.) In the early 1930s, the first coin-operated pinball machines were invented, and after the introduction of flippers in the late 1940s, the popularity of the game soared. But because pinball was viewed by some to be a game of chance (like gambling), it was banned in many cities. In fact New York didn’t lift its ban until 1976.

Get into the game with these 11 pieces of pinball slang.


A pinball enthusiast. Not to be confused with a certain, hell-raising pinhead. Similar is a plungeroo, a pinball-playing addict.


The flashy back panel of a pinball machine is known as the backbox (or "back box"). According to the Internet Pinball Machine Glossary, it is also known as the lightbox. In British English, it is referred to as the backflash. The display section of the backbox is known as the backglass, and often features some amazing art.


According to The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, a biff is an extra vigorous hit with a flipper. Some machines have what are called biff bars or anti-biff bars, metal bars placed behind the flippers with the purpose, presumably, of hindering biffing. The word biff has meant to hit or strike since the late 1800s.


A panic flip involves flipping before the ball has a chance to reach the flippers.


A Lazarus ball is a ball that’s come back to life. It’s passed between the flippers but by some bit of extreme chance gets flipped back into play. Named for the Biblical character who was brought back from the dead.


Nudging is cheating, or an expert move, depending on who you’re talking to. Nudging and shaking involves moving the machine just enough to influence the ball, but not enough to result in a tilt, or shutdown of the game. Some pinball video games also feature a nudge or shake feature.


You’ve got flippers and the ball—now how about those bumpers? Bumpers come in two varieties: passive and active. Passive bumpers just sit there while active ones bounce the ball back into play. Mushroom and dead bumpers are types of passive bumpers, while some active bumpers include the thumper, the jet, and the pop.


Also known as a zip ball, a house ball is one that has scored no points. The name may have come from the idea of the ball going back to the house, similar to a hand in a casino card game that the player loses.


Landing your ball in a kick-out hole will score you a certain number of points, depending on the game, before the hole kicks the ball back into play.


Getting your ball in the gobble hole will end the game but also give you bonus points. (According to the Internet Pinball Machine Glossary, this feature is no longer common).


Once your ball enters the drain, that area below the flippers, you can kiss it goodbye. Losing a ball like this is known as draining. The Internet Pinball Machine Glossary lists machines that drain too easily as drain-o-matics.

Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Want to Live as Long as an Olympian? Become a Chess Grandmaster
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images

It’s well known that physical fitness can help prolong your life, so it’s not surprising that elite athletes, like Olympians, tend to have longer lifespans than your average couch potato. But it seems that “mind sports” can help keep you alive longer, too. According to BPS Research Digest, a recent study suggests that international chess grandmasters have lifespans comparable to Olympic athletes.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, examined the survival rates of 1208 mostly male chess grandmasters and 15,157 Olympic medalists from 28 countries, and analyzed their life expectancy at 30 years and 60 years after they attained their grandmaster titles. They found that both grandmasters and Olympic medalists exhibited significant lifespan advantages over the general population. In fact, there was no statistical difference between the relative survival rates of chess champions and athletic champions.

There are several variables that the study couldn’t take into account that may be linked to chess players’ long lifespans, though. Grandmasters often employ nutritionists and physical trainers to keep them at their best, according to the researchers, and exercise regularly. Economic and social status can also influence lifespans, and becoming a world-champion chess player likely results in a boost in both areas.

Some research has shown that keeping your mind sharp can help you in old age. Certain kinds of brain training might lower the risk of developing dementia, and one study found that board game players in particular have slightly lower rates of dementia.

If keeping the mind sharp with chess really does extend lifespans, the same effect might apply as well to elite players of other “mind sports,” like Go, poker, or competitive video games. We’ll need more research to find out.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

David Franzen, Library of Congress
You Can Thank 1950s Suburban Architecture for ‘The Floor Is Lava’
David Franzen, Library of Congress
David Franzen, Library of Congress

No one knows who, exactly, was the first kid to play "The Floor Is Lava," the simple childhood game that has only one rule: You can’t touch the floor. But as Quartz reports, a new paper contends that the game wouldn't have come about if it weren’t for the rise of American suburbs.

Published in the Social Science Research Network, the analysis by Tim Hwang of the MIT Media Laboratory argues that architecture was a vital factor in the spread of the folk game.

In the new suburban housing developments of postwar America, builders began to market the relatively new idea of the family room, an informal room designed for the social needs of the whole family. This room was separate from the formal living room and dining room, both of which were more likely to contain the inhabitants’ good furniture and fancy china. In building plans popular in the 1950s and 1960s, they were also set apart from the kitchen. One 1965 poll found that seven of 10 new houses built that year contained a family room.

And these factors, Hwang argues, are integral to playing The Floor is Lava. Family rooms provide big couches, coffee tables, and other furniture that kids can move around, climb on, and use as props for the game. Bedrooms would be too small, and formal living and dining rooms too full of potentially fragile items that Mom and Dad would be livid to find disturbed. And kitchens were seen as a mother’s domain, meaning that she would likely be there to put a stop to any shenanigans.

"What is unique about the family room space is both the quantity of space and permission that it affords to the play of The Floor is Lava,” Hwang writes.

However, this is just a hypothesis, and no one can really identify who started playing the game first. Kids in urban apartments can also theoretically jump all over their parents’ living room furniture, if allowed. During my childhood, the game typically took place on a playground rather than inside, requiring players to avoid the ground rather than the family room floor. There are games that originated elsewhere in the world that also revolve around avoiding the floor—Hwang notes examples from Kenya and the UK. But given how the spread of suburbs in the U.S. during the postwar period affected home design, it makes sense that a game might arise from the new spaces children lived in. We may never truly know how The Floor Is Lava was invented, but architecture seems like a good clue.

[h/t Quartz]


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