What is the meaning and origin of `above board’?

When you say that a particular deal was above board, what you are implying is that there was no hanky panky involved. In other words, it was honest and legal. The kind of deal that you don’t generally associate with our politicians.

*If a politician is involved in a deal, you can be pretty sure that it is not above board. * Raju is straight as they come. All his dealings are above board.

There are several explanations for the origin of this idiom. According to one, the `board’ refers to a table. Therefore when you say that a deal was `above board’, what you mean is that it was done in an open manner — the hands of the participants involved in the deal were out in the open. There was no underhand dealing involved. Another explanation has to do with the smuggling of goods on ships. In the old days, people who smuggled things always kept them hidden below deck. The legal cargo would be placed in plain sight on the deck. In other words, anything that was placed on the deck was considered `above board’!

Source: The Hindu ‘Know Your English’ Series, December 19, 2005


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