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butter one’s bread on both sides See IMPROVIDENCE.
cover all bases To protect one-self against possible loss by anticipating and preparing for all possible alternatives in a given situation; to hedge one’s bets. This American slang expression derives from baseball. An infielder is stationed near or at a base at which a play is anticipated; the base is then said to be “covered.”
cover one’s tracks See CONCEALMENT.
handle with kid gloves To handle very gingerly and tactfully, to treat very gently and with the utmost caution and care; to pamper or mollycoddle. Leather made from the skin of a kid, or young goat, is especially soft. Perhaps this expression, which dates from at least 1864, is in some way connected with the opposing phrase to handle without gloves or with gloves off ‘to deal with harshly or with exceptional plainness or frankness,’ in use as early as 1827. In James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth (1888) he refers to
… the Americans who think that European politics are worked, to use the common phrase, “with kid gloves.”
have two strings to one’s bow To have an alternative plan of action should an unexpected emergency occur; to have something to fall back on; not to put all one’s eggs in one basket; to have more than one means of supporting one-self. In print since the 16th century, this expression alludes to the custom of archers carrying a spare bowstring in case the original one should break. In current use, such precaution can take the form of financial savvy, practicality in affairs of the heart (as in the following quotation), or any expedient employed to prevent one from being left in the lurch.
Miss Bertram … might be said to have two strings to her bow. (Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1812)
hedge one’s bets To protect against possible loss by cross-betting; to wager against a previous bet or other speculation in order to lessen possible losses; to equivocate or shift, to beat around the bush; also simply hedge. This expression, which dates from 1672, appears in Macaulay’s History of England:
He (Godolphin) began to think … that he had betted too deep on the Revolution and that it was time to hedge.
look to one’s laurels To be aware of the ephemeral nature of one’s preeminence; to continually strive to protect one’s status as the lead in any field. The opposite of rest on one’s laurels, this expression appeared in print by the middle of the 19th century.
The fair widow would be wise to look to her laurels. (Mrs. J. H. Riddell, Prince of Wale’s Garden-Party, 1882)
the mouse that has but one hole is quickly taken An old proverb expressing the necessity of alternate plans, somewhat similar to the currently popular don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The original Latin was mus non uni fidit antro ‘the mouse does not trust to one hole.’ A variant of the expression appears in Chaucer’s “Prologue” to The Wife of Bath’s Tale (1386).
play close to one’s vest To take no unnecessary risks, to act cautiously or carefully. Originally a gambling phrase, this expression referred to a player who kept his cards close to his vest to hide them from the sight of others. By extension, the expression came to mean a skillful, cautious player who does not reveal his strengths or weaknesses, one who does not tip his hand. It subsequently came to be applied to a person who exercises extreme caution in any venture.
walk a tightrope To maintain a precarious balance between opposing forces; to manage to please, or at best not to offend opposing factions; to straddle the fence, to play both ends against the middle. Obviously drawn from the acrobat’s act, the figure finds appropriate application in many political contexts. In Gulliver’s Travels Swift describes the rope dancers at the court of Lilliput, conceptual if not verbal forebears of today’s tightrope walkers.
Those persons who are candidates for great employments, and high favour, at court … petition the Emperor to entertain his Majesty and the court with a dance on the rope, and whoever jumps the highest without falling, succeeds in the office.
The expression is not limited to political contexts, however, and can be applied to anyone trying to reconcile or mediate seemingly antithetical entities or enemies—labor and big business, for example, or as in the following recent usage, artistic value and financial profit.
Mayer … is dedicated to the idea of books as works of the spirit and not just products for cost accounting. Those who are drawn to the spectacle of tightrope walking can look forward to more of Peter Mayer’s inventive and exciting balancing acts. (Walter Arnold, in Saturday Review, February, 1979)
walk on eggs To act cautiously and carefully because of the delicacy of a situation, to skate on thin ice; also to tread on eggs. This expression dates from the early 18th century.