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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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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.


I noticed recently that parts of this site were not working properly (including the administrative interface). After some Googling and a bit of imagination, I realized that somewhere out there somebody had updated PHP (don’t ask) to be less tolerant of the coding errors riddling the ancient version of Word Press I was using, causing the poor thing to sputter and fail. Da noive of some people.

So I spent today backing up and installing the new version of Word Press (4.1.1), which is tons of fun when you can’t really see what you’re doing. Anyway, the site now works. Sort of. Unfortunately, some of the plugins I use to run the site are too old to work with this new version (Catch 22), and I haven’t yet found replacements.

Long story short, the “Subscriber Content” part of the site is not working at all. I am trying to fix it, but at the moment I’m stymied. Please stay tuned.

January 2015

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Welcome to January, land of enchantment, and by “enchantment,” I mean, of course, frozen mud.

So, did everyone have a nice Getstuffmas? Santa brought us a broken furnace. It didn’t actually break all at once, but started to die a few days earlier, just not coming on until it was way colder in here than the setting on the thermostat. Then it wouldn’t stay on quite long enough to get back up to “warm.” It took us a while to catch on that our own furnace was gaslighting us. Lather, rinse, repeat, and pretty soon it was 12/25 and freaking freezing in here. I hate holidays. Oddly enough, the guy who came to repair it was insanely good at his job and had it humming away in about 20 minutes. At $10 and change per minute. Oh well.

It dawned on me a few days ago that this year, 2015, marks the twentieth anniversary of this website, a fact that I find simultaneously impressive and deeply disorienting. There aren’t a whole lot of twenty-year old websites still around, and the web was a very different place in 1995; I actually had to go buy a couple of books on Unix and HTML to figure out how to get the site up and running. I wrote the first version of the site in Notepad.

A few months later I wrote one of the first general purpose mass-audience internet books, called The Book Lover’s Guide to the Internet (Random House), which was excerpted in the Washington Post and was a huge success, except it made me next to no money for some reason. Probably because my idiot publisher refused to believe it was selling as fast as it was and never printed enough copies, so it was constantly out of stock in bookstores. A couple of years later (1998), I revised the whole book from scratch for next to no money because I was naive and had a lousy agent. It’s still available on Amazon, but please don’t buy it, because it’s about twenty years out of date.

That book did fulfill one of every author’s primo fantasies for me: I got to hang out in a busy bookstore a few days before Christmas (Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper West Side of NYC, in this case) and see dozens of people snatch up and buy multiple copies of my book. It was very cool, but also actually kinda creepy. Hard to explain.

Speaking of books about the internet, I recently read Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, which is very good. It’s much more than just another screed bemoaning the deleterious effects of the net; in many respects it’s not about the net at all, but the modern drive to seek solutions to things which may not, in fact, actually be problems at all. It’s a fascinating and very well-written book. Here is a somewhat long but very interesting interview with Morozov.

Elsewhere in the news, we sat down and watched Life Itself, the bio-pic about Roger Ebert, which I anticipated liking, because I liked Roger Ebert (although he liked a lot of absolute junk). Anyway, the more time passes after seeing the film, the more it strikes me as deeply unsatisfactory, a weirdly lumpy and half-baked effort in desperate need of a competent editor.

On the other hand, I was fully prepared to dislike Finding Vivian Maier because the thought of someone unearthing an artist’s work after the artist’s death and apparently profiting from it is inherently repulsive. But the film is absolutely fascinating, very well done, and shows a real commitment on the part of John Maloof, who bought several boxes of her negatives at an auction a few years ago, to both popularize her work and investigate her life story. I’ve always been a fan of street photographers like Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand, etc., and Vivian Maier‘s work is at least at their level. She was a genuine genius with an extraordinary eye. She was also a deeply strange and troubled person, a paranoid hoarder with a definite “dark side.” Anyway, it’s a great film. Unfortunately Vivian Maier’s work may soon be withdrawn from public view due to a legal wrangle, which would be very sad.

I just noticed that Netflix is now pushing The Interview at me. I’m gonna pass and stick to P.G. Wodehouse. Meanwhile, please consider subscribing or otherwise contributing to life here at Churchmouse Abbey, for we are as skint as our namesake.

And now, on with the show…