As we ate, he started telling me his story. He was a little hesitant at first. “I knew this lady … as a matter of fact, well, she was my mistress.” The man he’d had the fight with was this woman’s brother. He told me he’d been keeping her.

I'm not familiar with the use of keep in the sentence above. I've never heard someone said "keep somebody". Looking it up in the dictionary, I found a meaning which I think is what the author's trying to say:

to guard or protect someone: The Lord bless you and keep you.

Can somebody confirm this to me ? And Is this common in spoken language ?


2 Answers 2


For a man to "keep" a woman, or for a woman to "keep" a man, means that they are having an illicit romantic relationship and the person doing the "keeping" is paying all the bills. Like if a man has a girlfriend and she lives in his house and she doesn't have a job and so he is paying all the expense, than we say that he is "keeping her" and that she is a "kept woman".

Note that this term is not used for a wife, where traditionally the husband was expected to provide a house and pay the bills. It is sometimes used for a husband if he does not have a job but his wife does. But usually in this case it's used as a simile, that is, we don't say, "He is a kept man" but "He is like a kept man." He's not REALLY "kept" because they're married, but they act like he is.

The Bible quote you give, "the Lord bless you and keep you", is archaic language. No one uses the word "keep" today to mean "protect" except when quoting old text. Someone might say "keep you safe" or "keep you from harm" or some other longer phrase.

  • How about something like "My Sister's Keeper"? Not an archaic text quote?
    – Malady
    Sep 7, 2017 at 1:09
  • 5
    @Malandy that's a specific biblical reference, even if it's not a direct quote (Genesis 4:9, "Am I my brother's keeper?")
    – hobbs
    Sep 7, 2017 at 1:31

To keep a living thing implies a kind of ownership, or oversight, like with farm animals or pets:

When he was young their family kept chickens, so he was used to having fresh eggs every morning.

"Do you like dogs?" he asked. "No," she replied, "but I do keep an unruly tomcat named Sam".

You'd only use it with people in very limited contexts. For example, if you say you keep a mistress, it implies that you pay for all her necessary living expenses. Ancient Romans kept slaves, meaning they were treated as property.

In a different context, you could say that a business keeps a few attorneys (or any other job title) on staff, as if they were tools, paid to perform a particular service.

The high-class hotel always kept a doctor on call in case one of its guests had any urgent (and private) medical needs.

The tone of these varies. "Keeping slaves" dehumanizes the slaves to the status of owned objects, and "keeping a mistress" implies a subservient (or at least dependent) role, but "keeping an doctor" is not usually negative.

Lastly, "the Lord keep you" is short for a longer expression, something like

May the Lord keep you from harm


The Lord bless you and keep you from need

This is a different definition; here to keep from means "to prevent".

  • 1
    A bit of Urban Poetry: I'm a kept man, I'm a body for hire; \\ I was born to fulfill every woman's desires. \\ I shop, I'll clean, I'll even praise the Lord; \\ All of your needs get met when I come on board. Sep 6, 2017 at 17:08
  • 3
    I'm not sure your examples of professionals are the same usage; in your own examples, you aren't just "keeping" the lawyer and doctor, you're keeping them "on staff" and "on call", respectively. That usage seems to have more to do with the continuing nature of the employment/contract than ownership of the employee/contractor, whereas the bare "keep" virtually always implies some loss of autonomy on the part of the kept individual.
    – 1006a
    Sep 6, 2017 at 21:48
  • @1006a how is that different from "keeping a mistress" which also implies a kind of continuing financial relationship?
    – Andrew
    Sep 7, 2017 at 0:15
  • 1
    @Andrew because nobody speaks of "keeping a doctor" or "keeping a lawyer" (or other employees) in the way one might talk of somebody "keeping a mistress". The "on call"/"on staff"/etc is required, and "keeping a doctor on call" doesn't imply anything beyond "employing a doctor", while somebody "keeping a mistress" generally implies a loss of autonomy on her part in a way that somebody "having a mistress" doesn't.
    – Chris H
    Sep 7, 2017 at 12:13

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