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Close to the Hip/Chest

No peeking.

Dear Word Detective: Can you shed any light on “play it close to the hip”? — Jenny.

I’ll sure try, but this turns out to be an unexpectedly complicated question. Most of the results for “close to the hip” I found on Google, for instance, refer to orthopedic surgery and the like, which I doubt has any bearing on your question. Elsewhere in the “not relevant” category, I found a news story about celebrities (including, weirdly, uber-cool Matthew McConnaughey) reviving the hopelessly lame “fanny pack” of the late-1980s in fashionable upscale versions worn, ta-da, “close to the hip.” I’ll pass, thanks.

Judging by the instances I have found, “playing it close to the hip” seems to be used to mean “being discreet, careful or cautious about something,” as in “Until we make the announcement of your promotion, it’s best to play it close to the hip.” This would make “close to the hip” a fairly uncommon but plausible synonym of the far more established “to play something close to the vest” (or “chest”).

“To play something close to one’s chest” seems to date to the early 20th century, although it may well be older. Both the origin and logic of the phrase are revealed by the full form of the phrase: “To play one’s cards close to the chest,” i.e., in a position where other players and spectators can’t see the hand you’re holding. Back before the Plague of Screens abolished social interaction, card-playing was an enormously popular form of home entertainment, so the logic of the phrase would have been immediately obvious to most people, and made it a perfect metaphor for keeping something to oneself (“I couldn’t afford to give hints … You have to play these things close to your chest.” Agatha Christie, 1961). The popularity of card games also gave us the much older (17th century) idiom “to play one’s cards right,” meaning to employ one’s resources or advantages efficiently (“If you play your cards right you ought to marry well.” Maugham, 1931). “To play the [x] card,” where [x] is a contentious subject or issue (race, deficit, terrorism, etc.) dates back to the late 19th century (when it was “the land purchase card,” whatever that was, in Britain).

It’s likely that “play it close to the hip” is simply a variant of “play it close to the vest/chest,” perhaps with the sense of holding something you wish to hide down at (and slightly behind) your hip. It’s also possible that it contains a hint of the 19th century Americanism “to shoot from the hip,” literally to fire a handgun immediately after it’s drawn from a belt holster (i.e., without properly aiming it). “Shoot from the hip” as an idiom, however, means “to speak or act impulsively, without careful consideration of the consequences,” which makes it nearly the opposite of “to play it close to the vest.” But since both phrases are fairly well-known, it’s far from impossible that “play it close to the hip” is a weird but useful hybrid.