So this is sort of a double confession of ignorance, or maybe a confession of ignorance laced with a dash of the unobservant is more accurate. Last night, my sister and cousin were in town and we were having dinner on the wharf from which you could see the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, which celebrated its hundredth anniversary last year. On the walls of the restaurant were some historic Boardwalk pictures, one of which was of the 'first casino fire'. My sister asked, "Is the casino still there?" and I said no, that there were conference rooms and a ballroom there now. She said that the word casino, which we now associate with gambling, actually just means large meeting room. Santa Catalina, for instance, has a casino but it was never a gambling place. I would suspect that Santa Cruz wouldn't have had much tolerance for that either.
The unobservant part comes in as they were driving me home, and we came toward the front of the building, where the word CASINO shown in very prominent neon. This wouldn't be such a big deal, except that I live close enough to the Boardwalk that I can see that sign from my window. Admittedly, it's turned sideways toward me, but it's not like I've never walked along that stretch of pavement. So yes, there is still a casino at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, but it in truth more of a game arcade.
Anyway, we now have some inkling of what 'casino' means, but now I'm curious about its origins. It sounds like it must have Italian or Spanish origins, but we shall see...
Okay, it does all begin in Italy, and in the way that words do sometime begin meaning something almost opposite to what they mean now, 'casino' is Italian for little house. I suppose in Spanish it would be 'casita'.
In Italy, the word was first applied to a country house, and you only have to think of all the cutesy names Americans have had for their getaway homes to understand the diminutive aspect here. But just as inevitably, the word came to encompass what one might do in a country house, and so came to mean a place to dance, listen to music, and gamble. Apparently gambling took over as the main association to the word, first in Italian and then in English. It appeared in English in its first (or second) meaning of 'social gathering place' in the 18th century, and then meaning 'gambling establishment' in 1851.
So what was really going on on Santa Catalina that they felt obliged to use this word? I'll bet there were some card games to be found--and they weren't just betting toothpicks.