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I used the phrase "open-and-shut" today, as in, "It's not an open-and-shut case", meaning that the item under discussion has not been decided and the outcome is not obvious.

I don't think I've ever heard the positive, only the negative. "It's not an open-and-shut case" seems to be the idiomatic way to use the phrase. I'm curious:

  1. What's the origin of "open-and-shut"?
  2. What's the origin of the idiomatic usage, "not an open-and-shut case"?
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1 Answer 1

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Open-and-shut "simple, straightforward" first recorded 1841 in New Orleans.

No further information on the origin of this phrase is available from the other sources I checked.

Open-and-shut is certainly used in the positive sense. In fact, open-and-shut case is a common expression. Two examples:

And I also discovered that this phrase (open-and-shut) is extremely popular in golfing circles (think Open) with the hyphens dropped (open and shut or Open and shut). Examples (headlines):

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The 1841 usage is from the newspaper the Picayune (OED) and is "The contest between Humming Bird and Maria Collier was considered all but a ‘dead open and shut game’." – mgkrebbs Mar 6 '11 at 7:36
@mgkrebbs: Wow, awesome find. You should post this as an answer! – Jimi Oke Mar 6 '11 at 17:45
Yes, Google Ngrams finds several references to "open and shut case" in the 1800s. One suspects that the term didn't "take off" until movies popularized it, though. – Hot Licks Apr 29 at 12:31
Looking further, "dead open and shut" was extraordinarily popular in the 1800s. Looking at the references, most are from a (widely copied) book of biblical commentary by Joseph Hall, but the later ones appear to refer to games (probably poker). – Hot Licks Apr 29 at 12:41

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