Wildcard – definition and meaning

A wildcard is a playing card that can match any color, suit, value, or other property in a game – at the discretion of whoever is holding it. The word may refer to an opportunity to enter a sports tournament or competition without having to go through the qualifying rounds or to have reached a specific ranking level.

Sometimes a person or something may be referred to as a wildcard when we do not know how they will behave in a particular situation, as in: “The wildcard in next month’s negotiations is North Korea. How they will behave is anybody’s guess.”

When describing people, the term ‘wildcard’ has a similar meaning to ‘loose cannon’. The person is considered as generally unpredictable, often reckless, whose wacky behavior may either hurt or benefit the event, group, or whatever depending on the situation.

A wildcard may be an unexpected or surprising event. The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on 9/11 is an example of a wildcard.

The term can be written as one word – wildcard – or two words with or without a hyphen – wild card or wild-card.

Wildcard - three meaningsThe image illustrates three meanings of ‘wildcard’. 1. When an asterisk is used in a Google search, it represents many different possibilities. 2. In a pack of cards, it can represent any of the other cards. 3. When describing a person, it means that they are unpredictable; the person is a ‘loose cannon’ and may benefit or harm an event, meeting, etc.

According to Collins Dictionary, a wildcard is:

“1. If you refer to someone or something as a wild card in a particular situation, you mean that they cause uncertainty because you do not know how they will behave.”

“2. If a sports player is given a wild card for a particular competition, they are allowed to play in it, although they have not qualified for it in the usual way. You can also use wild card to refer to a player who enters a competition in this way.

“3. A symbol – such as * or ? – which is used in some computing commands or searches in order to represent any character or range of characters.”

Wildcard in computing

In the world of IT (information technology, i.e. computing), a wildcard may be a symbol used to replace or represent at least one character. For example, a question mark (?) may represent a single character, or an asterisk (*) could represent one, two or more characters.

Stan Wong - wildcard quotationStan Wong is Director & Portfolio Manager at Scotia Wealth Management. He is one of Canada’s leading investment professionals. (Image: adapted from twitter.com/stanwongwealth)

On its website, Computer Hope offers the following explanations for some wildcards:

Percent Symbol (%): this is used in SQL to match any character zero or more times; including an underscore.

Asterisk (*): in a wildcard, matches any character zero or more times. For example, ‘Ref*’ could mean ‘Referee’, ‘Reference’, ‘Referral’, ‘Referendum’ – anything that starts with ‘Ref’.

Question Mark (?): matches just one character. For example, ‘c?mp’ matches ‘comp’. If you used the question mark twice – ‘c??p’ – you would get ‘coop’.

Open and Close Brackets ( ) or [ ]: these can be used when referring to and including a range. In many programming languages, for example, [a-z] matches any character in the alphabet, i.e. ‘a’ through ‘z’.

Apus.LibAsnwers.com, part of the American Public University System, writes the following regarding wildcards:

“Wildcards are a librarian trick to maximize your search results in library databases. A wildcard is usually a character that may be used in a search term to represent one or more other characters.”

“Each of the library’s databases (and internet search engines) use wildcards differently. To find out what works in your favorite database, look for the “help” link (usually along the top of the screen).”