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English around the world: to hold something close to one’s chest

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By Carol Richards

“To hold something close to one’s chest”


This expression used in both the UK and the US has a few variations. One can “hold” or “keep” or “play” something close to one’s “chest” or “vest”. One can also “play one’s cards close to the vest”. Despite variation, the meaning is the same – keeping plans and intentions a secret from others.

The phrase probably originated with card games. It makes sense to hold your cards close to your vest so that no one else can see what you have. The phrase seems to have first been printed in a 1907 poem mourning the end of open gambling in Arizona, but usage didn’t pick up until after 1920. It also made an unusual appearance in 1962 US Supreme Court records.