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I learned a new idiom: "having something up one's sleeve," which means to have secret plans or ideas.

This idiom is from the practice of magicians hiding tricks or gimmicks IN the sleeve, right? Then, why don't we say "having something in one's sleeve"? I read the Cambridge Dictionary entry for "up," but still I'm struggling to understand this idiom. What kind of nuances does this "up" take on?

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    Great question. I’ve never thought to ask it but once I read it I immediately wanted to know the answer! Feb 6 at 15:10
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    I had always taken this idiom to be a reference to cheating at card games, especially Poker. A common variant is to "have an ace up your sleeve". The idea would be that a Poker player has surreptitiously hidden a high-valued card up their sleeve, with the intent of secretly using it to turn a losing hand into a winning hand. Feb 6 at 17:55
  • wiktionary affirms what you said about magicians (im surprised). sleeves are a good hiding spot. it also relates to card game cheating. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/up_one%27s_sleeve
    – Dor1000
    Feb 6 at 20:52
  • And yet, conflating the two for the sake of cheeky humor is heard of… ("yeah, i've got something up my sleeve. it's called...my arm." "SANS!!!" "what, you didn't find that very humerus?") Feb 7 at 16:23
  • I believe the cheating at cards origin predates the magician's "nothing up my sleeves" phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/26/messages/661.html A poem by William Dunbar in the early 16th century refers to 'ane fals cairt in to his sleif.'"
    – ColleenV
    Feb 7 at 18:16

3 Answers 3

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Your arm is in your sleeve, but you put your arm in from the top of the sleeve and that's what the sleeve is for.

But the idiom uses the preposition "up," because something up your sleeve would have been inserted into the bottom of the sleeve and pushed up from there, so it went up from the bottom of the sleeve to a higher point.

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    Indeed, any person wearing a sleeved garment always has something in their sleeve - their arm. Feb 6 at 18:15
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    from now on i dont trust anyone with long sleeves, i'll cross the street to go around em. mostly cuz of our extended conversation about hiding things.
    – Dor1000
    Feb 6 at 20:56
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    @Dor1000 if Assassin's Creed taught me a single thing... Feb 7 at 15:46
  • In fact, the use of "up" makes it remarkably vivd imagery, as is the case for an extremely similar, but significantly more vulgar construction. Feb 8 at 14:49
  • @MarcVaisband The one you are thinking of has zero to do with the idiom even though is might seem that it does...
    – Lambie
    Feb 8 at 14:51
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This idiom is from the practice of magicians hiding tricks or gimmicks IN the sleeve, right?

Historically it was more about physical objects being stored there. Stage magicians, for example, may palm a coin or other small object and then transfer it into their sleeve to make it look like it’s disappeared (or store one there so they can palm it and make it look like it appeared out of nowhere). Similarly, someone cheating at cards might store an extra ace (or king, or some other high value card) up their sleeve so they can covertly transfer it to their hand. An assassin or thug might store a dagger or throwing knife in a wrist sheath, which would also be ‘up their sleeve’, to keep it out of sight but readily at hand. Other possibilities that come to mind include a handkerchief, a folding fan, or a coin purse.

In pretty much all of those cases, the object would be put into or taken out of the sleeve from the bottom of the sleeve (the part where the wrist and hand stick out). Because the object is being put in from the bottom, it is inherently being put ‘up’ the sleeve, and it’s not an object that would normally be ‘in’ the sleeve, hence the usage of ‘up’ here.

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  • This. It's because the object is intended to later be taken down and out of the sleeve, to be used for whatever unexpected purpose.
    – Neil_UK
    Feb 9 at 8:02
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have something up one's sleeve is an idiomatic expression in English. It means to be up to something. Something has been pushed there "up there" on purpose.

have something in one's sleeve is not an idiom. If you have long sleeves something might be caught/stuck there.

My scarf was in my sleeve because of how I put it on. My earring was in my sleeve; it got in there when I put on my sweater.

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