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The following innocuous-sounding phrase

There's a star in the East

is a British euphemism that warns a gentleman that his trousers have not been closed properly. The British writer Philip Howard states

There are twee euphemisms for conveying the message; I suspect that they have military origins. For example: 'There's a star in the East,' and 'Are you feeling the draught?'

Modern Manners: The Essential Guide to Correct Behaviour and Etiquette

  • Is there any truth in the affirmation in bold?

  • Is there an American English equivalent that I can use in polite company?

Disclaimer:
This was supposed to be the third question of "Your fly is open" "You mean my flies?" but I thought better of it, changed my mind and so here it is.

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    As a 30-something middle class male who's lived all his life in South East England, I have never heard either of Philip Howard's star phrase. I may have heard the "draught" phrase, but if I did hear it I think it needed a second explanation. I have no military experience. The only euphemism I know of is "You're flying low", which (I assume deliberately) uses the words "fly (flies)" and "low". [I was tempted to post an answer, but think that one person's experience isn't the sort of categorical answer we want here. Happy to convert if someone disagrees.]
    – AndyT
    Sep 6, 2017 at 9:45
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    I would assume "star" just refers to a silver button (perhaps against dark blue/black material), and "in the East" means that it's visible on the right side of the seam (to the person wearing the pants, er, trousers), as opposed to hidden by the flap as it would be if fastened. "Star in the East" is recognizable as a stock part of the Christmas story (Matthew 2:2) and probably helped the euphemism gain currency. "Military origins" just sounds like speculation.
    – trent
    Sep 6, 2017 at 15:26
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    Mathew 2:2 Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 6, 2017 at 17:10
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    Translating directly from my local Indian saying, it would be "your post office is open". Doesn't sound right in English, not one bit.
    – NVZ
    Sep 6, 2017 at 18:41
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    @Mari-LouA I upvoted yours, since you had sources. My comment is also mostly speculation, even if it makes sense.
    – trent
    Sep 7, 2017 at 12:35

3 Answers 3

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I can't speak to the first question, but as for the second, it's common in the US to say something along the lines of your barn door is open. This assertion is supported by a survey done by the Dictionary of American Regional English that you may find interesting.

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  • I was about to write something like that. And it's nice to see you answering after a whole year!
    – NVZ
    Sep 6, 2017 at 18:40
  • or "the" barndoor is open.
    – user175542
    Sep 6, 2017 at 18:57
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Examples that mention the "star in the East" euphemism are disappointingly thin on the ground – to say the least.

New Bats in Old Belfries, published in 2005, written by Maurice Bowra (1898-1971)

  • ‘Showing a star in the East’ was a euphemism for showing an unfastened fly-button, to avert which peril signs warning ‘Please adjust your dress before leaving’ used to adorn public conveniences. Source

Dictionary of Euphemisms (1987) by R. W. Holder

  • star in the east (a) an undone fly-button
    An oblique warning from one male to another which seems not to have survived the zip-age

In the chapter dedicated to Human Bodies, page 44, the same author writes

  • We males must still adjust our dress after urination or we will find ourselves at half mast, catch a cold, be told that we are wearing a canteen or Turkish medal, learn that Charlie's dead, fly a flag or low, let Johnny out of jail, have a medal showing, hear that it is one o'clock at the waterworks, be warned that the shop door is open, or see a star in the east.

Eric Partridge in his Slang: To-Day and Yesterday (1961) seems to confirm Howard's theory that the origin is derived by the British army.

  • A military synonym was star in the East. The usual euphemism is a button showing.

    However, in Shorter Slang Dictionary (1993), Partridge and Beale annotate the following

  • star in the East, a a fly-button showing. Public-school slang. Since around 1915

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    Ah, yes! "Flag at half mast" was one I occasionally heard in the 6th grade.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 7, 2017 at 12:08
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A common American English euphemism is "XYZ" for “eXamine Your Zipper.”

From A Way with Words

The slang phrase XYZ, meaning “examine your zipper,” has been used since at least the 1960’s as a subtle tipoff to let someone know his zipper is down. A variant, XYZ PDQ, means “examine your zipper pretty darn quick.” Other surreptitious suggestions for someone with an open fly: “There’s a dime on the counter,” “Are you advertising?”, and “What do birds do?”

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  • A: "What do birds do?" B: "Fly". I only got just twigged. :) I don't get the "dime on the counter thing" tho'. Please edit and explain how that expression works. Thanks!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 7, 2017 at 6:48

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