skeleton in the closet

skeleton in the closet (US),
skeleton in the cupboard (UK)

Meaning

  • a secret of an embarrassing, guilty or shameful nature that you don’t want to disclose
  • something potentially disreputable that you wish to keep private
  • a bad thing from the past that could harm a person’s career or credibility if known or revealed
  • a secret fact about someone that will destroy a person’s reputation if exposed

Example Sentences

  1. I have come to know that Eric has a skeleton in his cupboard.
  2. It is always possible to find a skeleton in the closet when you dig into family history. Our great, great, grandfather had been in prison for bank robbery.
  3. Jane had been married to Matt for eight years before she found out about the skeleton in his cupboard. His teenage son turned up one day out of the blue, and she didn’t know he had other children. What a shock!
  4. The party asked the candidate if he had any skeletons in the cupboard that could potentially derail the campaign.
  5. People in this area are mainly corrupt, self-centered, and many with a skeleton in the closet.
  6. She refuses to speak up as she is afraid of the skeleton in the closet.
  7. Emma has a skeleton in the closet. After a fight with her husband, she once hooked up with his friend, William.

Origin

This phrase has quite a horrible history. UK parliament passed a bill in 1832 allowing doctors to dissect dead bodies for medical research. Before this, they could only use the corpses of executed criminals (which were more plentiful back then). It would have been unseemly to keep a dissected cadaver on display for the public to see so, the most obvious place to hide it away somewhere. The smell might have made the patients suspicious that there was a decomposing body hidden somewhere nearby, and a logical place would be a cupboard. Nowadays, we use this phrase in a more literal sense.

Many writers have used this idiom as evidence of murder. In the mid-1800s, William Makepeace Thakeray wrote in The Newcomes; memoirs of a respectable family:

“Some particulars regarding the Newcome family, which will show us that they have a skeleton or two in their closets.”

The oldest (most likely) printed record of the phrase can be found in the UK monthly periodical The Eclectic Review, 1816 by William Hendry Stowell:

“The dread of being the cause of misery to posterity has prevailed over men to conceal the skeleton in the closet…”

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