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15 November 2010

Monday's phrase 'Keep it under your hat'

 Yes, for a change - a phrase today, rather than a word.

In medieval times, English longbow archers were able to detatch their bow strings in the event of rain, and keep them dry under their hats.  Could this be where we get the expresion "to keep it under your hat".

Well, this is what Michael Quinion has to say on the subject:

"The development of meaning in the story is hardly obvious. How could the supposed practice of keeping an essential part of one'smilitary equipment dry by putting it under one's hat lead to the figurative sense of keeping something secret? The essence of the metaphor, of course, is that information or ideas that are "under the hat" are in the brain and so are secure from any interception. Apart from the logical gap, the story can also be refuted on bothhistorical and geographical grounds.

The evidence shows that "keep something under one's hat", meaning to keep it secret, is relatively modern, centuries later than medieval archers. It's also American. "

Rather a shame that, don't you think?  Personally I'd much prefer to think of a medieval archer keeping secrets as well as bow strings 'under his hat.'

*World Wide Words is copyright (c) Michael Quinion 2010. All rights reserved. The Words Web site is at http://www.worldwidewds.
Reproduced with permission