‘Hedge your bets’ is used when playing a less risky move instead of a riskier one with more return, but what does it have to do with hedges?
It’s a phrase steeped in British history; back in the 17th-century land ownership was everything, several centuries earlier land was anyone’s for the taking…or it was the king’s, but generally if you wanted to build a house you could just do it (As long as it didn’t happen to be on a piece of land that was particularly good for what the king liked to hunt). In about the 12th century, some bright spark realised that they could just start saying they owned a bit of land that no-one else did, and it was theirs. Since more land meant more wealth and thus more food (in reality it was only slightly more complicated but this isn’t a history blog) people grabbed land until there was nothing more to grab, then they started fighting (or using political or legal influence) to claim the most land.
But what does this have to do with etymology? Well, all this fighting and using political and legal influences really came to a head in the 17th century when most land had been claimed and it was really not helping the country to have all the landed gentry fighting amongst themselves. Laws were brought in that meant you couldn’t just claim land and a boundary needed to be formed to ensure everyone knew where one person’s land ended, and another’s began, enter the humble hedge. Within land, landowners also used hedgerows to separate it up for workers, so they knew which area they worked (and lived) in. It’s why hedgerows in fields are so ubiquitous in the British countryside today.
So hedgerows were boundaries and land was better than money; like now, people got into debt and when they did, things could get pretty violent. You really didn’t want to default on a debt in the 16th century. If it came to time to pay you’d pay, or you could potentially get very hurt. If you didn’t have the cash (or more likely grain or livestock), one solution was to take out another, bigger loan (it was bigger because you had to pay the interest on the first and second loan, it’s your basic wonga.com deal). This was termed ‘hedging your debts’ – likening the small debt fitting inside the larger to the small areas of hedged off land fitting into the larger.
Later that century, in 1672 the term was applied to bets; George Villiers (the 2nd Duke of Buckingham) wrote, in his satirical play ‘The Rehearsal’
“Now, Criticks, do your worst, that here are met; For, like a Rook, I have hedg’d in my Bet.”
In this meaning, it was to take a bet in order to (hopefully) pay off another which had been lost. The meaning changed slightly over time and now it applies to taking a smaller bet to save losing a bigger one… far more practical.