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By Tom Sloper
February 17, 2008

Column #353

American Mah-Jongg (2007 NMJL card). This week's column asks the question, "what's in a word?" Certain terms we commonly use, or misuse, can clarify or confuse.


Many players use the word "steal" to refer to the blind pass, an optional Charleston maneuver. And it doesn't even make sense to call it that! You take tiles from the player at one side, and do not take them yourself (as you normally do). Rather, you give them to the player at your other side. Rather than calling it "stealing," maybe those people ought to call it "Robin Hooding!" The proper name for the maneuver is "blind pass," and that nomenclature clarifies the rule.

Some players use the word "steal" to refer to the act of taking a discard for exposure. It doesn't make sense to call this move "stealing," either. Because the discarder had in fact thrown the tile away. Is it "stealing" to take someone's trash? I ask you, what's the sense in this terminology?

There's even a third use some people have for the word. Some (not many) use "steal" to refer to joker redemption. This one almost makes sense, because you're removing a valuable tile from another player's rack. But consider: the tile's value only exists before it is used in an exposure. Once exposed, the joker has no more value to its owner than any other exposed tile. Not only that, but when you redeem a joker, you add value to the player's hand when you replace it with a natural. The player might score double for being jokerless.

So I ask you, does the term "steal" even have a place at all in American mah-jongg? Methinks not.


Many players use the word "call" to refer to the naming of a discarded tile. Personally, I think "name" or "announce" would be better terms. And the main reason why this verbalization needs a different term is that the word "call" already has a... calling.

We rightly use the word "call" to refer to the act of speaking one's intention to take a discarded tile. Some players even call for the discard by speaking the word "call!" This is the correct usage of the term "call" in American mah-jongg.

I find it confusing if the word "call" is used to mean both "say the name of the tile I'm discarding" and "speak my wish to take the current live discard." Example: "I called my discard, and Alice called it for exposure." Wouldn't it be better to say "I named my discard, and Alice called it"?

Most of the time, other players will get your meaning from context. But ambiguous terms can sometimes lead to confusion; confusion can lead to conflict and disharmony. And we don't want that!


This is part of an occasional series on "Words."

  • Part 2: Column 460
  • Part 3: Column 463
  • Part 4: Column 477
  • Part 5: Column 502

    Click the entries in the header frame, above, to read other columns.

    Question or comment about this column? Email and the discussion will be posted on the Mah-Jongg Q&A Bulletin Board.

    Haven't ordered the 2008 NMJL card yet? Read FAQ 7i.

    Need rules for American mah-jongg? Tom Sloper's book, The Red Dragon & The West Wind, can be ordered through AND see FAQ 19 for fine points of the American rules (and commonly misunderstood rules). AND get the booklet from the NMJL (see FAQ 3).

    Jay Firestone of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles has posted a nice video about a young man (himself) learning to play American mah-jongg. You can see it at

    © 2008 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved.