What is the origin of the phrase "in your back pocket"?

As in "What song have you got in your back pocket?" for "what song have you got ready to perform comfortably now, without preparation".

  • 9
    I cannot find any specific etymology, but the phrase is quite straight forward - something readily available. We have the exact same phrase in Danish for anything readily available, cash, lovers but also the opposite as in, "You need a million? Oh, I'll look in my back pocket"
    – mplungjan
    Apr 16, 2013 at 17:38
  • 1
    I don't think this is the meaning you're looking for, but to be 'in someone's back pocket' means they have control over you, perhaps having bribed you. Eg 'The mayor had the police chief in his back pocket' means the mayor could depend on the police chief to act in a way that suited the mayor.
    – Mynamite
    Apr 20, 2013 at 1:10

3 Answers 3


A quick search of Google Books suggests this figurative phrase is fairly recent.

New York Magazine (28 Jun 1982 - Page 15 - Vol. 15, No. 26) has an article on public speaking:

Maye adopts the Socratic method and teases out of us the idea that answering questions is a welcome way to clarify points and resell your audience. But how to prompt people into asking any?

"Have a transition question of your own in your back pocket," she clues us. "Raise your own hand and ask it."


It's similar to having a "trick up your sleeve" Except, I feel like "in your back pocket" usually implies something physical, where a "trick up your sleeve" is usually more of a non-physical thing.

There's also having a person in your back pocket, which is the meaning that Mynamite was talking about, where you have a person ready to do your bidding at any time. It's not always the result of a bribe, but it often has that implication as well.

  • 1
    Welcome to the ELU :-). Can you please provide a reference to support your answer - this would make it more useful for both the OP and future users of the website. Jul 7, 2015 at 0:47

This phrase was used during the 1981 housing recession, at a time when many middle managers were being laid off. It referred to having some other skill (or side business) that you use to gain employment if you were laid off.

  • 2
    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Apr 13, 2022 at 16:56
  • If that is so, what is the significance of the word 'backpocket'? And can you link to a source to substantiate your answer?
    – Joachim
    Apr 13, 2022 at 17:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.