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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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2 Answers 2

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

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

The meaning of the phrase is sligtly different, you can find many explanations on the web:

open-and-shut

  1. So obvious as to present no difficulties; easily settled or determined: "an open-and-shut case".

Therefore in the negative it means that it is not obvious/ easy, difficult, complex, hard to solve etc...

The origin you are looking for is just the sentence you quote and everybody is quoting: it's legal usage and comes from trials of court-cases:

if a case was open to no doubts as to the legal principles to be applied and the necessary result, a judge could open a file/ dossier, examine it in a short time, and then shut it and take his obvious decision

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Except that the question is about the origin of the term, and "open and shut (poker?) game" appears to be older than "open and shut case", but with essentially the same meaning. –  Hot Licks May 2 at 13:09
    
@HotLicks, I believe Merriam-Webster can be trusted, if the first record regards a figurative case , it makes no difference on the real origin, which seems obvious. You do not open or shut a game: "the origin of the idiom is an open-and-shut issue" –  Mark May 2 at 13:13
    
Merriam-Webster is not infallible (or even accessible, for that matter). –  Hot Licks May 2 at 13:20
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JS Skinner, "Horse Racing", 1840: The disappointment and mortification was so great, that for the first twenty minutes after the heat Queen Mary was freely backed against Grey Eagle, while so far as Wagner was concerned, it was considered a "dead open and shut." "Open and shut case" doesn't appear until about 1918. –  Hot Licks May 2 at 13:33

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