Background: Hi, this one is my first question on this site. Until now I was just a developer asking for help on stackoverflow.com.

So today I was watching the movie Now you see me, where they all get caught and then Jesse Eisenberg tells the cop "Listen you have what we call in business Nothing up your sleeves".

What I have tried:

So I tried to Google it, using define nothing up your sleeves but no answer or definition came up! So I tried to go to some other sites. But no success!

My Question:

All that I know is that this is something about magic, like magicians have a card up their sleeves! But what is meant by that phrase or whatever, I am not sure.

That why I asked the question. What is meant by: "Nothing up your sleeves"?

  • youtube.com/watch?v=kRW7pITY5Cg
    – Jim
    Sep 21, 2013 at 7:35
  • No no @Jim, sorry! YouTube is blocked here :( Sep 21, 2013 at 7:41
  • Too bad, it's a Rocky and Bullwinkle clip.
    – Jim
    Sep 21, 2013 at 7:43
  • Well I will watch that using a VPN, I will really watch it! :) thanks for that.. Sep 21, 2013 at 7:46
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    Looks like the mystery is being solved here. That said, if you have further English questions, you might want to check out English Language Learners, too, which was designed as a place where non-natives confused by everyday nuances of English could ask their questions.
    – J.R.
    Sep 21, 2013 at 10:19

6 Answers 6


It comes from magic, but it is often used figuratively simply to mean that the speaker is not hiding anything.

  • You mean the first person, or the second person; The one he is addressing..? Sep 21, 2013 at 7:41
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    If the speaker says 'I've got nothing up my sleeve' it means that the speaker claims not to be hiding anything. If the speaker says 'I hope you've got nothing up your sleeve', then the speaker is referring to the person addressed. Sep 21, 2013 at 7:44
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    Bingo! That was easy :) And thanks for helping me betterify my english :D hehe just kidding :) Sep 21, 2013 at 7:46
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    To clarify: if I say I have nothing up my sleeve, it means that I'm dealing honestly, with no hidden agenda or secret plans. If you (or Jesse Eisenberg) say I have nothing up my sleeve(s), it means that I appear to be bargaining from a weak position - and that, in fact, I am bargaining from a weak position! What might a person have up his sleeve? Either a concealed weapon or (more likely) some hidden cards. The expression comes from gambling and stage magic; magicians like to show that they're not hiding anything (when, of course, they are!) Bullwinkle J Moose says this all the time.
    – MT_Head
    Sep 21, 2013 at 8:58

The idiom mainly comes from magic shows, where the magician would, prior to doing some slight of hand trick, say "There's nothing up my sleeves" and push up the floppy sleeves of his jacket to show that nothing was hidden there. (The idiom also references, of course, the practice of hiding cards up ones sleeves when cheating at cards. It's probably impossible to assign the origin of the idiom to one scenario or the other.)

Of course, magician's action was very likely a distraction (in a fashion typical of prestidigitators) while he in fact hid something up his sleeve or otherwise set up the trick, but such deceit is not implied by the idiom, which, in its simplest interpretation, means "I'm not hiding anything".

The idiom may also be used (with a slightly different meaning) in, say, a business discussion, where a problem is being discussed, and one party asks another if he has anything up his sleeve to address the issue. In this case, the question is asking whether the second party has any useful ideas or information which he may not have thought to mention. (The question is not used in an accusative sense, but rather to promote open discussion.)

It's unclear what the context is in the original question, but if someone tells a cop or (more likely) a prosecutor that he (the cop/prosecutor) has nothing up his sleeves then the intended meaning may be more like the business sense, and the speaker may be saying that the cop/prosecutor has no case and no hidden information he can use to make a case.


I'd add that this comes from gambling, where some people may have extra ace up in their sleeve to increase their chances to win. So having nothing up one's sleeve also means that the game is played honestly (EDIT: the game here could be in literal sense as well as in figurative; in any case, it all boils down to having nothing hidden).


Have something up your sleeves: Means to have some secret plans or ideas.

Most of the magicians have somethings up their sleeves.


Well "nothing up your sleeves" most likely derives from Roman history. This is because during meetings, or upon first meeting another. The Romans would grab each others forearms. This was to make sure the other one wasn't concealing a weapon in their sleeve. So, basically what "nothing up your sleeves" means is that your not hiding anything. Thus; the reason many magicians use the saying. Its to simply show and tell the audience that they aren't hiding anything up their sleeves. So, in the context of the "Listen you have what we call in business, Nothing up your sleeves" he's telling the cops that they have no hidden evidence on them. But, the actual term of "nothing up my/your sleeves" means you're not hiding anything. If you want to mean it as "you have a plan", or "you're hiding something" that one is simply "I've got something up my sleeves".

  • This is unvarnished BS.
    – Dan Bron
    Oct 5, 2015 at 21:21
  • Hi user141409 and welcome to ELU! Can you provide a reference for this?
    – Dog Lover
    Oct 5, 2015 at 21:27
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    @DanBron you know that with 100 % certainty, Dan? Oct 6, 2015 at 0:13
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    @DanBron I don't know that it is false but we also don't know if magicians were the first to use this phrase...they might have lifted it from another source as this user claims. Oct 6, 2015 at 0:17
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    @DanBron it is possible that magicians got the expression from the world of gambling and that gamblers had a similar phrase that they used which might have dated to Roman times. We attribute the expression to magicians but no one has done the least bit of checking to see if in fact magicians were the first to use this expression. It would be like saying magicians invented the top hat because in all old pictures of them we see them wearing one. If his answer is folk bs (and why is folk stuff always bs?) where does it come from? Oct 6, 2015 at 0:54

In certain contexts, it could mean "You are not well equipped for the situation", also related to the magic reference. I'm not familiar with "Now you see me" though.

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