Show one’s cards and tip one’s hand

Show one’s cards and tip one’s hand are two idioms that are derived from the same literal source, though they have a subtle difference in meaning. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as up a creek without a paddle, don’t count your chickens, barking up the wrong tree and piece of cake, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the phrases show one’s cards and tip one’s hand, where they came from and some examples of their use in sentences.

To show one’s cards means to let someone in on your secret, to reveal your agenda, to expose your hidden intentions, feelings or resources. The term to show one cards also has a literal meaning, which is to lay one’s hand of cards upon the table so all players may see what you have been holding. This move is especially necessary in the game of poker, to declare victory. The idiom to show one’s cards is related to lay one’s cards on the table, which also means to reveal one’s agenda or plans. Note that the act of showing one’s cards is voluntary on the part of the person who is exposing his hidden intentions or plans. Related phrases are shows one’s cards, showed one’s cards, showing one’s cards.

To tip one’s hand means to accidentally reveal one’s secret, agenda, hidden intentions, feelings or resources. The term tip one’s hand also has a literal meaning, which is to inadvertently let one’s hand sag, allowing other players to see what cards one is holding in his hand. Note that if one tips one’s hand, it is not voluntary. This is the difference between show one’s cards and tip one’s hand. Showing one’s cards is a deliberate and honest act. Tipping one’s hand is a moment when one slips and shows his deception. Related phrases are tips one’s hand, tipped one’s hand, tipping one’s hand.


“There comes a time in the near future when you’ve got to show your cards,’’ Showalter said. (The Baltimore Sun)

Giuliani was showing his cards when he explained that Trump had personally covered the $130,000 payout to Daniels. (The Federalist)

I underestimated Tyler, the kid is playing the game, but he needs to be careful, playing both sides can get you in dicey water, because you will eventually have to show your cards and the target of betrayal amplifies on your back. (Canyon News)

You don’t want to tip your hand to the bad guys, and you don’t want to scare the public. (The Ottawa Citizen)

That’s smart, don’t tip your hand, but you wonder whether that offense is going to spring to life as the wondrous, whirring machine that Gruden implicitly promised when he took that huge contract. (The San Francisco Chronicle)


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