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.

  17. Actually, I have read the whole phrase, and so has the Hat. Robert Heinlein, Double Star (1956):

    “Hmm … Dak, how did you ever get into it? Offhand, I would figure [space] voyageurs to be as unpolitical as actors. And you in particular.”

    “They are and they aren’t. Most ways they don’t give a damn whether school keeps or not, as long as they can keep on herding junk through the sky. […]”

  18. Great find! And you’re right, of course I must have read it when I was ten or twelve, but at that age there was so very much I didn’t understand this particular usage zipped right past me without leaving a trace.

  19. It is in my current opinion the best of Heinlein’s books: the protagonist is not artificial (though he is an unreliable narrator).

  20. David Marjanović says

    As unpolitical as actors? Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis.

  21. That makes me ask: What would be the worst of Heinein’s books? Some of them are really terrible….

  22. IMAO, Farnham’s Freehold, which is nauseating. Or maybe Sixth Column, which even Heinlein thought was a flop.

  23. My personal vote is for The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, which is basically a alternate universe slash-fic Heinlein wrote using his own characters.

  24. January First-of-May says

    I also wanted to mention The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, where I could never figure out what was going on (which admittedly might have been intentional), but I haven’t read enough of Heinlein’s more obscure works (especially the early ones) to be sure which particular one was the worst specifically.

    I rather liked Farnham’s Freehold the one time I read it (a few years ago), it was a nice story (and I particularly liked the depiction of problems in adapting Scrabble to a language with a pervasive honorific system). Can;t recall having ever heard of Sixth Column before (though the Wikipedia description does suggest that it’s probably bad).

  25. Farnham’s Freehold takes a group of American whites and tosses them into a black-dominated civilization. Okay, fine, lots of potential there, exposing them to their own hidden racism and so on. Except it turns out the new black overlords are slave-takers, castrators, and cannibals, and only the one black American prevents Farnham et al. from being instantly slaughtered. Things go downhill from there. “An anti-racist novel only a Klansman could love.”

  26. Wow, apparently I missed that one when I was devouring Heinlein all those years ago, and a good thing too.

  27. Brenda Robinson says

    My stepmother would say this if she was ill and didn’t feel up to doing anything except taking to her sick bed. She was born and bred in southwest Oklahoma and I grew up there myself, a transplant from the east coast. I now live in Minnesota. This is a common saying in that part of Oklahoma, but have never heard it anywhere else.

  28. Kathie Klar Kluth says

    My Mom (born 1911, dec 1997) used the phrase “I’m going to (…..), I don’t care if school keeps or not!” She probably heard it from her Mom, who was 2nd generation German- American. Potosi & Platteville, SW Wisconsin. Her meaning was she was going to do it and nothing was going to stand in her way!

  29. T. Misu says

    My mother, from the midwest, used it a lot. Her meaning was “didn’t give a darn.” Her whole family used it, as did my grandparents.

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

    I just read this in a New Yorker article: “‘History teaches, but has no pupils,’ the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote.”

  31. A similar saying that struck me (although I can no longer recall its origin) is: “History teaches no lessons and punishes harshly those who fail to learn them”

  32. Used to be a common phrase applied to one who couldn’t care less if the job at hand got done or not. ANY job he or she was responsible for. Have used the phrase myself about employees who would just as soon see things go wrong as right

    “Don’t care if school keeps or not” usually means if the job goes to hell so much the better for that individual..

  33. I was looking for the meaning of this phrase and found this site. I read the figure of speech in Susan Glaspell’s 1919 masterful short story POLLEN where she writes:
    “The Balches, who didn’t care whether school kept or not, just so they had a good time, had a farm that was good enough if you didn’t know what a farm might be.”
    Glaspell is from Davenport, Iowa, and has written a lot using that background. The previous comments often mention both that region and period and even a German immigrant connection which appears to have been present in Davenport, too. All this is very helpful in my trying to narrow in on a suitable translation (into German). Thank you!

  34. And thank you for adding that excellent example!

  35. From Bob Sharp’s Cattle Country, 1975 “… we noticed an old boy slow-trotting down the road from town. It was easy to see that he was a big-outfit waddy by his gear, and by the way he sat ramrod straight in his double rigged saddle. You could tell that he didn’t give a good goddamn whether school kept or not.”

  36. Another fine example!

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