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Apologies if this is a duplicate, I am just curious. Are they both valid? Which originated first?

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I have no good data sources to back this up (and hence I'm not posting this as an answer), but I would note that I have only ever heard the former. –  John Bartholomew Mar 8 '11 at 1:13
    
Is this as in "Playing your cards close to your chest", or a variation on "Something that's close close to your heart?" –  Andrew Grimm Mar 8 '11 at 1:57
    
Playing cards.. –  Matt Mar 8 '11 at 2:08

9 Answers 9

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Either one is fine. Close to the vest has a more British feel to me, but I've heard both in the U.S.

EDIT

OK, since this apparently bothers someone, I did some research and it appears that the "vest" usage is more American. Note that my original statement of "British feel" was admittedly idiosyncratic.

Note also that either one is still fine, despite any individual's peevish disapproval.

Here are some NGram searches and their results:

British English:

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American English:

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Combined British/American:

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Apparently the "vest" version came into British English in the late 1950s, but didn't gain widespread acceptance until the 1990s. Currently it looks poised to gain equivalence with the "chest" version, although such things are hard to predict.

Disclaimer I am not a fan of Google NGrams, because they can be used without regard for proper statistical practices. It can be hard to "clean" queries enough to be useful. The phrase "close to the chest" may, in fact, be over-represented here due to medical and other bodily associations, so I would expect some blue-line inflation in the above graphs. Similarly, "close to the vest" almost certainly appears in some references to garment making and wearing. Those things aside, I believe the "close to the chest/vest" idiom undoubtedly furnishes the majority of usage instances in each case.

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I have never personally heard close to the vest in the UK, and would have guessed it was American prudery of the kind which got The King's Speech an R rating from the MPAA. Some searching suggests that the vest version is in fact much rarer than chest and is used both sides of the Atlantic. –  Henry Mar 8 '11 at 2:00
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@Henry: And don't even try "Close to the breast"! –  Andrew Grimm Mar 8 '11 at 2:03
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I’m another Brit here who’s never heard the “vest” version — it sounds quite unnatural to me, and googling suggests it’s considerably rarer. Also, given the difference in meaning of vest, it would seem to make more sense in the US — card-players (in the grand days of poker, at least) would surely have been more likely to wear waistcoasts (= AmE vests) than singlets (= BrE vests)? –  PLL Mar 8 '11 at 3:13
    
@PLL, @Henry: I said it had a British feel to me, which is not the same as labeling it a Britishism. "Close to the chest" is more common, but I know I've read both in works of fiction both British and American. Thanks for the data points, though. Do either of you recall reading the expression, or only hearing it? –  Robusto Mar 8 '11 at 3:20
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Another Britisher here - I don't recall ever reading or hearing the "vest" version, though the "chest" one I have both read and heard often. I think @PLL's point about the difference in meaning of vest in the two dialects probably explains a lot :) –  psmears Mar 8 '11 at 9:51

I have always heard/used "close to the vest", but apparently both are indeed common. The Corpus of Contemporary American English gives 89 hits for "close to (...) vest" and 36 for "close to (...) chest" when used synonymously. (There's 123 hits overall for chest, but the majority are for "she held the baby close to her chest" and other similar literal uses.)

Dictionary.com lists the origin of the phrase as mid-1900's (card-playing-based) slang, but RandomHouse's Word Maven lists uses from as far back as 1922.

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another Englishman here - one who has been obsessively reading novels for a bit less than 60 years. "Close to his vest" is certainly not GB English. The first-ever time I came across "vest" was when I recently started grappling with David Baldacci's contemporary prose. It seems to be a 'word-jerk' (like knees but with words) with him and all sorts of characters quip this expression out, telling me more about the author than about the character in the book.

In every context I've ever come across it means 'secretive' - the analogy being card players who hold their cards close to their body to prevent being them being overlooked. Transferring this across the Atlantic and allowing for transliteration it's natural to suppose that as vest = waistcoat then holding your cards close to your waistcoat (as already suggested) would have led to a natural morphing of the expression.

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"Close to the vest" is the original phrase and originated from poker players keeping their cards low on the table and close to their vests. I'm looking for a source to back this up so you don't have to take my word for it, but you'll note that this is also a very American origin, as poker was invented in America around 1864 (stud poker – with earlier precedents in a game played in New Orleans).

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"Close to the chest" or "close to the heart" would certainly be in line with the Mideval notion of the "Book of the Heart" that contains all a person's experiences, good points and sins and which is secret, only to be read on Judgment Day.

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http://esnpc.blogspot.com/2014/05/close-to-vest-and-pulitzer-prize.html?m=0

The original idiom is, "to play one's cards close to the vest buttons," but that version only appeared in print a few times. The buttons were quickly dropped. The version with 'chest' appeared a few years later.

The problem with the ngram search is that the searcher omitted the word 'cards' at the beginning. When researching my blog post, I encountered many, literal, non-idiomatic "close to the chest"s before the card/vest idiom was coined, but no earlier idiomatic use with cards.

The earlier literal use included golf and gymnastics manuals, as well as anatomy texts, and numerous examples where hands or something were literally held close to the chest.

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The fact that Americans intuitively understand what the phrase means when "vest" is used and the British seem to only guess what it means, does support the idea that it comes from American card players.

I first heard the expression, using "vest," a few years back. It was spoken by an American born around 1930. He'd been in marketing and had a super vocabulary. He explained that keeping it close to your chest came from...drum roll American card players, whose advice to keep your cards close to your vest was applied to other situations where not giving your hand away was good advice.

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You haven't heard vest in its British sense of a light top worn as underwear? Different from the American usage, though if anything the saying makes even more sense with the British meaning (not that that makes the saying British, it is quite definitely American). (Back when America was still somewhere the British sent convicts a vest was any loose sleeveless shirt, especially that Charles II actively tried to make fashionable). –  Jon Hanna Feb 18 '13 at 3:15

As an American, my understanding of the phrase is indeed related to poker, and holding your cards so they can't easily be seen. It's used to describe a situation where a person isn't talking much about their methodology or their plans.

"How's he planning to do it?"

"I don't know, he's keeping his cards pretty close to his vest."

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Seems the use of close to the vest is a niche phrase. Being American by birth, I have never heard or read it being used. It just seems kind of odd.

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This is more of a comment than it is an answer. When you gain more reputation, you will be able to post comments. Until then, please only posts answers using the Post Answer box. As it turns out, close to the vest is a pretty well-known phrase, even if you are not personally familiar with it. It’s how one plays one’s cards in poker, you know. And I don’t see what being American has to do with the price of tea in China here. –  tchrist Jan 12 at 17:59

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