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But don't tell a soul

Posted: Tue Sep 15, 2020 4:08 pm
by Stevenloan
Bill: Is your brother getting married?
Sally: Yes, but don't tell a soul. It's a secret.

- Hi everybody! Besides "don't breathe a word" and "keep your mouth shut", is there another common phrase to substitute for "don't tell a soul"?

Thanks a lot!

StevenLoan

Re: But don't tell a soul

Posted: Tue Sep 15, 2020 6:17 pm
by Erik_Kowal
Keep mum about this.

Keep it under your hat.

This is just between you and me.

Let's keep it a secret.

Let's keep this on the down low.

Don't go spilling the beans.

If anybody asks, you don't know nothing.

Let's keep it quiet.

Nobody else needs to know.

Keep your trap shut.

Keep shtum.


It would be quite usual to follow any of these with a tag seeking confirmation, such as "OK?", "you got me?" or "all right?" (possibly accompanied by a couple of taps with a forefinger on the side of the nose).

For example:

If anybody asks, you don't know nothing, all right?"

Re: But don't tell a soul

Posted: Tue Sep 15, 2020 7:41 pm
by Phil White
Erik_Kowal wrote:
Tue Sep 15, 2020 6:17 pm
It would be quite usual to follow any of these with a tag seeking confirmation, such as "OK?", "you got me?" or "all right?" (possibly accompanied by a couple of taps with a forefinger on the side of the nose).
For clarification, Steven, Erik means that the speaker may tap himself or herself on the side of the nose, not that the speaker may tap the listener on the side of the nose... :wink:

Re: But don't tell a soul

Posted: Tue Sep 15, 2020 7:57 pm
by trolley
...unless the speaker had just coined a new phrase..."Keep it in your nose".

Re: But don't tell a soul

Posted: Tue Sep 15, 2020 9:10 pm
by Phil White
Good point, trolley. On reflection, it is an odd gesture. I cannot think of it being used outside of the context of an exhortation to keep secrecy, but I can think of no verbal connection with the nose.

Suggestions as to the origin of the gesture, anyone?

Re: But don't tell a soul

Posted: Tue Sep 15, 2020 9:45 pm
by trolley
In the poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas", as Santa is about to leave the scene he "lays his finger aside of his nose" and gives a nod. I always thought that was a strange way to say "keep quiet". Why didn't he put his finger across his pursed lips like everyone else does to say "Shhhh..."? Maybe there is a connection in these two gestures...the side of the nose somehow evolved into across the lips?
Maybe there's a fourth monkey..."smell no evil" but no one talks about him, anymore

Re: But don't tell a soul

Posted: Wed Sep 16, 2020 5:27 am
by Erik_Kowal
trolley wrote:
Tue Sep 15, 2020 9:45 pm
Why didn't he put his finger across his pursed lips like everyone else does to say "Shhhh..."? Maybe there is a connection in these two gestures...the side of the nose somehow evolved into across the lips?
Perhaps keeping something secret in the future is seen as sufficiently different to being physically silent right now that the respective exhortations require different gestures.

Or maybe the nose-tapping gesture originated in a pun on "knows" and "nose".

Re: But don't tell a soul

Posted: Wed Sep 16, 2020 9:11 am
by Phil White
This has begun to interest me.

There are a few discussions around on the Web, some of which reference the film "The Sting", but I seem to remember the gesture from my childhood, which predates the film by some time. Indeed, even a cursory search throws up this passage from the 1839 Dickens novel Nicholas Nickelby:
Here he broke off to look round in every direction, and satisfy himself beyond all doubt that there were no listeners near. Assured that there were not, he tapped his nose several times, accompanying the action with a cunning look, as though congratulating himself on his caution; and stretching out his neck, said in a loud whisper, 'Are you a princess?'
'You are mocking me, sir,' replied Mrs Nickleby, making a feint of retreating towards the house.
The passage also throws up some nuances of meaning of the gesture that I had not thought about. It seems to me that it can mean at least three different things:
  • I am telling you something that must be kept a secret.
  • I know something about what you are asking about but am constrained to keep it a secret.
  • I know or have guessed your secret but will keep it quiet.
    (This appears to be the meaning in the passage above.)
Google's Ngram Viewer gives plenty of results from the 18th century for "tapped his nose", but has nothing earlier than the Dickens (I also tried other variants).

The Dickens passage suggests that the gesture was known in the first half of the 19th century, so it is undoubtedly older than that. But I am no wiser as to its provenance.

There is, however, a delightful little passage from Harrison Ainsworth's "The Miser's Daughter" which hinges on a character failing to understand the gesture. Sadly, I cannot copy text from Google Books (neither can my screenreader read it, which is another story), but here is the link: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=s4K ... 22&f=false

Re: But don't tell a soul

Posted: Wed Sep 16, 2020 1:16 pm
by Erik_Kowal
trolley wrote:
Tue Sep 15, 2020 9:45 pm
In the poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas", as Santa is about to leave the scene he "lays his finger aside of his nose" and gives a nod. I always thought that was a strange way to say "keep quiet".
So we now have three different gestures involving the use of an index finger to indicate silence: placing an extended finger along the side of the nose, tapping the side of the nose, and pressing a finger across (often pursed) lips.

Re: But don't tell a soul

Posted: Wed Sep 16, 2020 1:25 pm
by Phil White
"Don't tell anyone that I didn't have a handkerchief with me and just wiped my nose with my finger."

Re: But don't tell a soul

Posted: Wed Sep 16, 2020 4:10 pm
by trolley

Re: But don't tell a soul

Posted: Thu Sep 17, 2020 5:10 pm
by Stevenloan
Erik, Phil White and trolley : Thank you all so much for your help. I really appreciate it.

StevenLoan