skeleton in the closet: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘skeleton in the closet’ mean?

The idiom "skeleton in the closet" refers to a hidden or embarrassing secret that someone wants to keep concealed from others.

Idiom Explorer


One of the idioms commonly used in American English is "skeleton in the closet." This idiom refers to a shameful or embarrassing secret from someone's past that they would rather keep hidden. While its origin is not entirely clear, there are a few potential explanations for the idiom's meaning and usage.

One theory suggests that the idiom may have originated from the practice of storing human skeletons in closets during the 19th century. Medical schools often obtained cadavers for dissection and study. In some cases, these bodies were obtained through questionable means. The presence of such skeletons, hidden away in the privacy of a closet, could be seen as a metaphor for concealed secrets.

Another possible origin is rooted in the practice of spiritualism that gained popularity in the 19th century. Spiritualists claimed to communicate with the spirits of the deceased. It was believed that these spirits were often restless due to unfinished business or unresolved secrets. Metaphorically, one's own secret could be seen as the metaphorical skeleton haunting their conscience.

The idiom started appearing in written texts during the late 19th century, suggesting that it had already become well-established in spoken language by then. Its popularity and widespread usage continued into the 20th century and beyond, solidifying its place in modern English.

Skeleletons in the closet can be hauntingly revealing.

Today, "skeleton in the closet" is often used to describe any unpleasant or embarrassing secret that someone may possess. It implies a sense of hidden shame or discomfort, as the individual would prefer to keep their secret concealed from others. Whether it be a past misdeed, a family scandal, or a personal habit, the idiom illustrates the desire to avoid exposure and maintain a facade of respectability.

An idiom related to "skeleton in the closet" is "skeleton in the cupboard." This idiom has a very similar meaning and is often used interchangeably. It also refers to a secret that someone wants to keep hidden from others, especially if it is embarrassing or shameful.

Another related idiom is "up one's sleeve." This phrase refers to having a secret plan or action that one can use to gain an advantage or surprise others. It suggests that someone may have something hidden up their sleeve, just like a skeleton hidden away in a closet or cupboard.

Furthermore, the idiom "on the down-low" is connected to the concept of keeping secrets. It refers to doing something quietly or discreetly, without others knowing about it. Just like a skeleton in the closet, something on the down-low is hidden away from prying eyes and knowledge.

Lastly, "behind closed doors" is another idiom that relates to secrets and hidden actions. It describes something that occurs in private or without public knowledge. Similar to a skeleton in the closet, what happens behind closed doors is concealed and kept away from others.

The enduring popularity of these idioms in American English reflects society's fascination with secrets, the unknown, and the darker aspects of human experience. They reveal our universal curiosity about what lies beneath the surface, hidden away from prying eyes. The use of these idioms continues to captivate and resonate with audiences, as they tap into our own innate desires to keep certain aspects of ourselves hidden. They also acknowledge that within each person, there may be hidden depths waiting to be discovered.

Example usage

Examples of how the idiom "skeleton in the closet" can be used in a sentence include:

  1. She was afraid that her past criminal record would be discovered and her secret would be revealed, so she always felt like she had a skeleton in the closet.
  2. He had a successful political career until rumors started circulating about his involvement in a corruption scandal, leading people to believe he had a skeleton in the closet.
  3. After her sudden disappearance, the investigation uncovered a hidden room in her house where disturbing evidence was found, exposing a literal skeleton in the closet.

The idiom "skeleton in the closet" is commonly used to refer to a shameful or embarrassing secret that someone tries to keep hidden from others. It metaphorically alludes to a hidden skeleton (representing the secret) being kept in a closet (symbolizing privacy or concealment). It is often used to describe someone's fear of their past actions or events being discovered and potentially damaging their reputation or relationships.

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