Kept under wraps: Idioms that describe secrets

by Kate Woodford

secretAs part of our series on English idioms, we’re looking this week at common expressions for describing secrets and secretive behaviour.

A lot of expressions refer to secret situations or information. If someone keeps a new piece of work or information under wraps, they keep it secret: They didn’t know whether to make the announcement immediately or keep it under wraps for a few weeks. Someone who has something up their sleeve has a secret plan: Who knows what she has up her sleeve. If a situation is cloaked or shrouded in secrecy/mystery, it is deliberately kept secret: Very little was known about the incident. For years it was shrouded in secrecy. Meanwhile, something that happens behind closed doors happens in a place where most people cannot see or hear it: These deals take place behind closed doors.

Other idioms refer to remarks that are made in private. A comment that a public figure, such as a politician, makes off the record is not intended to be told to the public: She made it clear that her remarks were made off the record. If you tell someone something in the strictest confidence, you tell them it in private on the understanding that they will not tell anyone else: I told him, in the strictest confidence, that I was looking for another job. Someone who takes someone to one side has a private talk with them away from other people: I took him to one side and told him to apologise to Jamie. Meanwhile, if you complain that someone else has said something unkind about you behind your back, you mean that they deliberately said it when you weren’t listening: She got the feeling that the other girls had been talking about her behind her back.

A third group of idioms describes people who are secretive, hiding their plans and actions from others. Someone who is said to keep or hold their cards close to their chest does not tell others what they intend to do: No one knows what Joe will do next. He keeps his cards close to his chest.  Meanwhile, in UK English, someone who keeps an ability or achievement secret may be described as a dark horse: I had no idea Sophie was a published author. She’s something of a dark horse, isn’t she? Finally, someone who does not tell or show you what is going to happen may be said to keep you guessing: As ever, the world’s most famous football manager keeps the press guessing about his next move. Do you know anyone who keeps their cards close to their chest or keeps you guessing?

15 thoughts on “Kept under wraps: Idioms that describe secrets

  1. Tatiana Balandina

    It is interesting that there are similar idioms in the Russian language and they are often used by common people. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Figures of speech | ELT Infodump

  3. This is my guess for the equivalent spanish idioms:

    keep it under wraps= mantenerlo oculto.
    have sthgh up his/her sleeve= estar tramando algo.
    cloaked or shrouded in mistery: estar envuelto en el silencio, o en un halo de misterio.
    to take place or happen behind closed doors: hacerse a puerta cerrada.
    off the record= off the record
    in the strictest confidence= de forma confidencial
    Take someone to one side and tell her= Decir en privado (Le dije en privado que..)
    Tell sthg behind your back= decir algo a tus espaldas ( funny plural)
    Hold their cards close to their chest= Guardarse todas las cartas (Nadie sabe lo que hará Joe despues. Se guarda todas sus cartas)
    To be a dark horse= Tenerse algo muy callado (No sabia que era una autora publicada. Se lo tenia muy callado)
    Keep you guessing= Tener en ascuas (Como siempre,el manager de futbol tiene a la prensa en ascuas sobre su próximo movimiento).

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