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What exactly does it mean? And what is the origin of the phrase "hedge your bets"?

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To "hedge your bets" means to reduce or mitigate your risk. According to Etymology Online, this usage of hedge has been around since the 1600s.

From this page, the origin of the phrase comes from an actual hedge or plantings that act as a fence to enclose a piece of land. A hedge delimits an area, so the idea of a limited risk arose from that concept. An older expression, "to hedge in a debt," supports this origin.

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'Hedge your bets' - meaning and origin.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Hedge your bets'?

Hedge has been used as a verb in English since at least the 16th century, with the meaning of 'equivocate; avoid commitment'. An example of this comes in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, 1600:

I, I, I myself sometimes, leaving the fear of God on the left hand and hiding mine honour in my necessity, am fain to shuffle, to hedge and to lurch.

It began to be used in relation to financial transactions, in which a loan was secured by including it in a larger loan, in the early 17th century. Initially, the phrase associated with this form of hedging was 'hedging one's debts', for example, John Donne's Letters to Sir Henry Goodyere, circa 1620:

"You think that you have Hedged in that Debt by a greater, by your Letter in Verse."

'Hedging one's bets' was coined later in that century. It referred to the laying off of a bet by taking out smaller bets with other lenders. The purpose of this was to avoid being unable to pay out on the original larger bet. The phrase was first used by George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, in his satirical play The Rehearsal, 1672:

"Now, Criticks, do your worst, that here are met; For, like a Rook, I have hedg'd in my Bet."

The verb 'to hedge' derives from the noun hedge, that is, a fence made from a row of bushes or trees. These hedges were normally made from the spiny Hawthorn, which makes an impenetrable hedge when laid. To hedge a piece of land was to limit it in terms of size and that this gave rise to the 'secure, limited risk' meaning. Hedge funds, much in the news nowadays, take their name from their method of limiting, that is, hedging, their risk.

Curiously, the original examples of another financial device currently newsworthy that is, stocks, were literally made from material that was taken from hedges. In the 17th century, the tally that recorded a payment to the English Exchequer was a rough stick of about an inch in diameter, split along its length. One half, the stock, was given as a receipt to the person making the payment; the other half, the counterfoil, was kept by the Exchequer. Ownership of payments that were made jointly by a group were shared among the members of so-called joint stock companies, hence stocks and shares.


Inky Fool: How John Donne Invented the Hedge Fund

Quoting from Mark’s interesting article “From that sense of making your debts safe, came the idea of hedging in your bets...” I recall being told by a “betting man” that the original ‘hedges’ were planted at racecourses as a border between the Grandstand & the public area.

Bookies in the Grandstand were dressed like the rest of the ‘toffs’ and took bets very discreetly (no ‘Odds Board’ or Gladstone Bag for them!)

Because ‘toffs’ usually placed large bets, the Grandstand Bookies went to the hedge to ‘lay off’ some of their commitments with the bookies in the public area on the other side of the hedge.

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The figure of speech “to hedge one’s bets”, whether it be in relation to a market investment or a wagering game “bet investment”, derives—albeit sometimes loosely speaking—as an allusion to “fencing in” so as to prevent loss by escape (a form of guarding or protection), as if with hedgerows or similar planting arrangements. The chief characteristic of a “hedged” bet/investment is that it requires a (generally profit reducing) counter-endeavor—a likely-to-be countervailing bet, investment, operation—so that the net gain expectation, if any, is knowingly lowered in order to avoid or minimize net loss. To say that one’s bets are hedged (in the sense of a generally low-growing planted barrier) as opposed, for instance, to saying that they are walled in, is to say that a hedged investment remains, to some degree, exposed to adverse influences, even loss, from within or without the partial, protective “hedge” screen.

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I can't back this up with reference but, from experience, when planting a hedge, it wise to plant some "spare" plants elsewhere. A common rule of thumb is one spare for every twenty plants in the hedge. This 5% of spares are there to replace any failures in the hedge plantings as, obviously, the occasional failed plant is going to seriously detract from the value of the hedge. I've often wondered if this is the origin of the expression? You are making a small investment in potentially unwanted plants to protect your larger investment in the hedge.

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  • But the metaphor of the idiom is using a hedge to protect something else, not protecting the hedge itself. – Anton Sherwood Jul 19 '20 at 2:58
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Longman Dictionary of English Idioms (1979) offers this straightforward and intuitively reasonable explanation of "hedge one's bets":

hedge one's bets coll[oquial] to try to make oneself safe against possible loss, esp. by putting money in other businesses: it is very important to hedge your bets in any business, but putting on plays in theatres is especially risky {Referring to putting a HEDGE or protective wall around one's bets}

Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) explains the phrase similarly:

hedge one's bets Lessen one's chances of loss by counterbalancing it with other bets, investments, or the like. For example, I'm hedging my bets by putting some of my money in bonds in case there's another drop in the stock market. This term transfers hedge, in the sense of "a barrier," to a means of protection against loss. {Second half of 1600s}

As noted in the discussion of "hedge your bets" at the Phrase Finder (quoted in full in Elaine Nai's answer), one of the earliest recorded instances of a phrase bringing hedging and bets together, is the prologue of George Villiers (the Duke of Buckingham), The Rehearsal (1672):

We might well call this short Mock-play of ours / A Posie made of Weeds instead of Flowers; / Yet such have been presented to your noses, / And there are such, I fear, who thought 'em Roses. / ... / Now, Critiques, do your worst, that here are met; / For, like a Rook I have hedg'd in my Bet. / If you approve; I shall assume the state / Of those high-flyers whom I imitate: / And justly too; for I will shew you more / Than ever they vouchsaf'd to shew before: / I will both represent the feats they do, / And give you all their reasons for 'em too. / Some honour to me will from this arise. / But if, by my endeavours, you grow wise, / And what was once so prais'd you now despise; / Then I'l cry out, swell'd with Poetique rage, / 'Tis I, John Lacy, have reform'd your Stage.

As use by Villiers, rook refers to neither the crowlike European bird nor the chess castle, but instead to a cheat at games of chance. B.E., New Dictionary of the Canting Crew (1699) conveniently provides slang definitions for both hedge and rook:

Hedge, to secure a desperate Bet, Wager or Debt[.] By Hedge or by Style, by Hook or by Crook.

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Rook, c. a Cheat, a Knave. To Rook, c. to Cheat or play the Knave.

As the Oxford English Dictionary observes, "hedging in" can serve the purpose of confining or of protecting:

Hedge, v. ... 1. trans. To surround with a hedge or fence as a boundary or for purposes of defence. Also with in, about.

The ambiguity of "hedging in" as between confinement and protection is evident from instances that antedate the earliest instances of "hedging in" one's bet. For example, James Fergusson, A Brief Exposition of the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (1659) includes this passage:

How often do we mistake our way, and little lesse than quarrel with God? only because He hedgeth us in with thorns of affliction, that we cannot find out our lovers; and therefore that man is truly blessed whom the Lord doth not only chastise, but also instruct out of His Law, Ps. 94. 12. and thereby make him understand and hear the voice of the rod, and of Him who hath appointed it, Mica. 6. 9.

Do the thorns of affliction imprison us or keep us from worse danger? Fergusson seems to believe that they do both.

Although the instance "hedging in one's bet" The rehearsal is the earliest such match that a search of Early English Books Online finds, a second instance appears just one year later. From anonymous, "S'too him, Bayes, or, Some Observations upon the Humour of Writing 'Rehearsals Transpros'd'" (1673):

The Pope is a Worthy Prince, and lives in Italy, and long may He live and injoy his health at Castle Gundolpho, before ever I'le begin to disturb him first: But if Cardinal Chigi covets Bansted Mutton, and Colchester Oysters, and can't be contented with Muscadine and Eggs, but must have Mornings Draughts out of our Herefordshire Red-streak and Kentish Pipins; in this case I must (like Frier Iohn) take up Arms for my Vineyard, and if I catch him there (as sure as his Cap's made of wool) I'le knock him down with a Hop-pole. Therefore pray hence forward let alone my Mistress, for if you come to fooling with Her, I must hedge my Bet, and be revenged (if I can) upon your Wife.

This instance is of quite a different kidney from the one in Villiers's prologue. Villiers frankly equates himself with a cheating gambler—since he aims, through his tactic of burlesquing bad tragedies, to win the favor both of audiences who like the original works (by imitating them) and of audiences who consider them absurd (by mocking them). Either way, the gamester wins.

But the anonymous pamphleteer responding to "Rehearsals Transpos'd" doesn't seem to mean hedge in the sense of "have it both ways"; rather he seems to mean hedge as something like "protect" or "counterattack on behalf of" and his bet seems not to be a desperate wager (as the New Dictionary of the Canting Crew puts it) but simply an investment or prize property. In this respect, the pamphleteer's usage seems much closer to the modern sense of "hedge one's net" than the usage by Villiers.

A third instance, in Andrew Marvell, Mr. Smirke; or, The Divine in Mode (1676) returns the gambling sense of the expression to the fore:

But the Clergy having got this once in the wind, there was no beating them off the scent. Which induced Constantine to think the convening of this Council the only remedy to these Disorders. And a woful ado he had with them when they were met to manage and keep them in any tolerable decorum. It seemed like an Ecclesiastical Cock-pit, and a man might have laid wagers either way: the two parties contending in good earnest either for the truth or the victory, but the more unconcerned, like cunning Betters, sate judiciously hedging, and so ordered their matters that which side soever prevail'd, they would be sure to be the Winners.

Marvell seems to be splitting the difference between the wily cheater of Villiers's usage and the sturdy yeoman defender of Herefordshire Red-streaks and Kentish Pipins against the depredations of Italian apple thieves. The milieu once again involves betting on the outcome of a game of chance, as in Villiers, but the hedgers are cagey practitioners of realpolitik who are looking to their self-interest above all else, not card sharps or dice cheats.

Two other instances of "hedging bets" appear in the Early English Books Online database, which covers the period from the 1400s to 1700. From anonymous, "The Murmurers, a Poem" (1689):

Plain Cowards others, Egypt's Threats they hear, / And backwards look, not out of love, but fear. / (Ridiculous Fools, — nor e'er were Cowards wise.) / Lest Pharao and his Host again shou'd rise. / Their hands to Bricks, and not to Swords enur'd, / They'd hedge their Betts, on either side secur'd. / True Bats, whom yet no Side nor Standard knows, / Those Beasts of Birds are neither Friends nor Foes.

This excerpt expresses disapproval of certain Israelites who accompanied Moses out of Egypt but were ready to surrender without a fight if confronted with Pharaoh 's soldiers; in the poet's view "hedging one's bets" in this instance amounted to a form of moral equivocation, which he equates with the ambiguous status of bats—mammals that act like birds and yet are neither reliable friends nor determined foes of either class.

And finally, from "Hearty lover of King William and Queen Mary," "Some Modest Reflections upon Mr. Stephens's Late Book, entituled, A Plain Relation of the Late Action at Ssea, Between the English, Dutch, and French Fleets, from June 22 to July 5 Last with Reflections Thereupon, ..." (1691):

The unfortunate business of the Fleet; the general Mismanagement of Affairs; the Debauchery of the Nation, and those in publick Employments; the Behaviour of Church-men towards Dissenters, and others; his own Bill at the end.

For the first of these: The Affair of the Fleet. Here the Author of the Reflections needed not to have hedged in his Bett so carefully, and to fright any one from Answering what he writes on that Head, ...

I say he's safe enough in that Lock, and needed not have denounc'd so terribly against any one who should endeavour to force him out on't.

The hearty lover of the king and queen uses the expression "hedged in his Bett" to indicate that the author whose work he is critiquing seems unduly concerned with challenging the honor and patriotism of anyone who might challenge his comments regarding the "Affair of the Fleet," and to suggest that his doing so is an attempt to establish credit for himself as an honorable and patriotic observer prior to making comments that are far more controversial than these initial ones.


Conclusions

Of the first five instances of "hedging one's bet" that my search of the Early English Books online database uncovered, only one—the 1673 instance by the anonymous pamphleteer warning against inroads into England by the Catholic church—uses the expression in a positive sense. The others—from the gambling cheat in Villiers's prologue to the cynical synod participants in Mr. Smirke to the batlike equivocators in "The Murmurers" to the straw patriot of A Plain Relation—involve at best unprincipled and at worst criminal regard to the hedgers' perceived self-interest. And yet in the long run, "hedging one's bets" has come to be treated as an expression of common prudence and practical wisdom.

Still, the origin of "hedging one's bets" as a figure of speech seems clearly to have originated in the notion of putting a hedge around one's land or livestock to prevent them from escaping or from being plundered.

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