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August 25, 2000

close to the vest

Alice Haverland wrote:
Can you explain the expression playing it close to your vest? I think it means being very cautious or careful. Can you tell me if the phrase exists and what its origin is?

The phrase certainly exists--in fact, with abundant variations, such as playing/keeping it close to the/your vest/chest. But the real clue to its origins is in the longer form: playing your cards close to the vest.

The literal reference is to holding your playing cards close enough to your chest so that no one else can see them. The idea is to prevent others in the game from gaining a strategic advantage over you. You do this by not allowing them--or their possible confederates standing behind you--even a glimpse of your cards. Here is a snippet from Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt (1922), where the setting is a men's club: "He was a large man with hair en brosse, and he knew the latest jokes, but he played poker close to the chest." This is more than a factual description. The author is saying something significant about the man's character.

The metaphorical use, then, is a natural extension: if you play it close to the vest/chest, you plot your course of action cautiously, carefully, and with cunning; and--most importantly--you keep your intentions and all relevant information hidden. A citation from the OED illustrates this secretive behavior: "I couldn't afford to give hints... You have to play these things close to your chest" (Agatha Christie, Pale Horse, 1961).

In recent years, the metaphor has reached beyond mere human beings to describe the behavior of anthropomorphized corporate entities: "Tivoli Systems, a subsidiary of computer giant IBM, which has responsibility for securing the Olympics computer systems--a network of around 7,300 personal computers--was also playing its cards close to its chest today (AP newsfeed, 2000). One more example: "For an industry that wants to know an awful lot about each and every one of its 'customers'--with and without clothes on--hospitals tend to keep their own business dealings pretty darn close to the vest" (The Columbus Dispatch, 2000).

The world of cards provides a fertile source of metaphor. You can, for example, keep a poker face, play your cards right, have a card up your sleeve, or have an ace in the hole. And if you aren't careful to keep your cards close to your vest, you'll tip your hand. Of course, if you are uncomfortable with secrecy, you can choose to lay your cards on the table.


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