[Ads-l] Antedating "Close to the Vest (buttons)" - chest, breast and nose

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Fri Jan 11 20:26:16 UTC 2019

Several years ago I posted a piece about "close to the vest."

The earliest, figurative example of something like it I found at the time was from 1905, in a piece by William Allen White about the governor of Missouri, who was said to play "the game of life with a smiling face, but with his cards close to his vest buttons." William Allen White, Folk: The Story of a Little Leaven in a Great Commonwealth, which appeared in McClure’s Magazine, Volume XXVI, Number 2 (December, 1905), page 125.

The expression was widely reprinted, or cited, when the article came out, and other examples followed soon afterward.

The earliest example of "close to the vest," without buttons, I could find was also written by William Allen White, in 1919; and the earliest "close to the chest" in 1920.  Because White was responsible for the earliest "close to the vest buttons" and "close to the vest" I could find, I speculated that White may have either coined it or been responsible for popularizing the expression.  Perhaps I gave him too much credit.

A reader commenting on my post noted a much earlier, apparently one-off use of "cards close to the nose," in reference to Disraeli, from British newspapers in 1874.

In revisiting the expression, I have found one pre-1905 use of "close to the vest buttons," from 1892, several figurative uses of "close to the breast," from as early as 1892, and a similar idiomatic use of keeping/holding "all of the cards (sometimes trump card) in my hands," from as early as 1868.

In 1892, regarding a race for Senator.

"And William R. Grace is not in it.  And there are not wanting those who say that after all, Mr. Whitney has his cards pretty close to his vest buttons, and is playing a very shrewd game."

Appeared in three newspapers, Cincinnati Enquirer (page 1), Boston Globe (page 3) and San Francisco Examiner (page 1) on the same date, November 22, 1892.

I find no further examples until 1905.

In 1892, regarding a surprise pay raise or bonus (? - some text lost at edge of paper).

"The boss held his cards close to his breast and [ga]ve the boys a genuine surprise.  I guess that [?],000 per annum will suit Chapin better than a [sea?]t in congress, where there are men just as [??]er as he is."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 15, 1892, page 6.

Several other examples of "close to the breast" throughout the 1890s.

"Holding the Cards in my own hand" appears to sometimes mean, to hold or maintain any sort of advantage, and in some cases is used more to mean something more like withholding information, as in "close to the vest."  The earliest withholding-information example I found is from 1868, in a story about a man traveling incognito to avoid having his pending marriage sabotaged.

"Quick as thought I determined to keep the cards in my own hand - they were there so long as I withheld my name."

Harper's Magazine, volume 36, Number 216, May 1868, page 733.

There was a widely circulated joke around 1900 that used this expression.

"Was your interview with that young candidate satisfactory?"
"Not at all," answered the practical politician.
"Couldn't you arrange a deal?"
"Yes; a deal's just what he wants.  He objects to my holding all the cards in my own hand."

Evening Star (Washington DC), September 24, 1898, page 6.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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