A Wordorigins.org thread started by aldiboronti asked about a line from a book that puzzled him: “I don’t care if school keeps or not.” It turns out it’s an old Americanism I was unfamiliar with:

keep, v.
38. b. Of a school: to be held. U.S.
1845 Knickerbocker XXVI. 277 One afternoon, when ‘school didn’t keep’, some one got into the house. 1867 ‘T. LACKLAND’ Homespun I. 123 The District School has not ‘kept’ since the week began. 1908 M. E. FREEMAN Shoulders of Atlas 68 School ain’t going to keep today.

Another commenter says it seems to exist now mainly “in a set phrase… ‘I don’t care if school keeps or not’, ‘I don’t give a damn if school keeps or not’, ‘whether school keeps or not’ etc. which is used in situations where no actual school is involved to mean something like ‘come hell or high water’.” Does anyone out there know/use this phrase? If so, where are you from?


  1. There’s a British usage of “keeping term” which implies that the school is in session and the pupils ought to be there. Here’s a link to a University usage:-

  2. Come to think of it, there’s a Scots usage “to keep school”, “to keep church” that implies that he who does so is a regular attender. Perhaps that also gets turned round so that the school “keeps” implies that the school is open so the the laddy who “keeps school” can attend.

  3. I’ve read it often enough, but not heard it or used it. I take “I don’t care if school keeps or not” to be simply an emphatic form of “I don’t care”, the distinction between “school’s in” and “school’s out” being a fundamental one, at least to children.

  4. I remember hearing the phrase “so and so kept school” on old TV shows. The settings were usually small towns or rural areas in the mid-West and West, if I remember correctly.
    I always assumed from the context that the phrase meant something like “taught class in a one-roomed school house”. A google search turns up at least two examples that seem to confirm this interpretation, albeit in New England settings; one from a diary kept by a woman from Waterbury Conn. in 1819, and another from a history of Northfield Mass. in the 1770’s. I’m sure a more thorough search would turn up more recent examples. (Sorry not to provide the links. I’m not sure how to do it on this site.)
    I grew up in urban California. I’ve never used the phrase myself or heard it used except on TV.

  5. Well, “kept school” is a different construction, so I don’t think it counts here. Interesting that John Cowan has “read it often enough”; I wonder how I’ve managed to miss it? It’s a striking enough phrase I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have ignored it.

  6. DARE has an entry for this construction, “in phr _not to care whether school keeps or not_ and var; Fig: not to care what happens; to go one’s own way. _somewhat old-fash_”. They have examples from 1852 onwards. DARE doesn’t give this any regional labelling; the three post-1930s examples are from Pennsylvania, Maine, and Michigan.

  7. Thanks, I was wondering if it would be in DARE.

  8. Never heard it, never heard of it. Northern California, mother’s family came in the Gold Rush – immigrated from upstate New York, previously from Massachussetts (1800 or so). The other side of that side came from France about the same time. The other other side is Irish, midwestern. Never heard the expression.

  9. Via Google books, an earlier citation than your 1845 one is this 1841 arithmetic book: “If the school keeps six hours every day, how many hours will a pupil be in school during six days?”
    And this one from 1832.
    Here’s a timeline of news items using “school keeps or not”, showing that it starts up mid 1800s and peters out after the 1960s. (Click on blue bars for specific citations.)

  10. Wow, that timeline is great—what a resource!

  11. fimus scarabaeus says:

    how to keep a castle or be it stand in the castle keep

  12. “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.”
    Attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

  13. My mother was from eastern Kentucky and I recall her using the phrase I, he, they “don’t care if school keeps or not” suggesting that it makes no difference one way or the other or it does not matter to me.

  14. I meant that I had read keep school often enough, not the full phrase.

  15. Shelman Stone says:

    I used this phrase today and then wondered about the origins of it. This is how I found this site. I live in a small town in Kansas. Back in the 1960s when I was a young man the older Farm guys that worked with me would say this quite frequently. So I think I know its meaning as it was used in context which was pretty close to what I have read so far. My thinking was that school “keeping or being in session” was a good orderly thing for everyone involved and if one didn’t want that to happen they just didn’t care about anything at all!

  16. Makes sense to me, and I’m glad you found this thread.

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