skeleton in the cupboard: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘skeleton in the cupboard’ mean?

The idiom "skeleton in the cupboard" refers to a hidden or embarrassing secret or past action that someone wants to keep concealed.

Idiom Explorer

Hidden Secrets

Skeleton in the cupboard is an idiom that is commonly used in both British and American English. It is often used to refer to a shameful or embarrassing secret that someone has and wants to keep hidden from others. The idiom suggests that the secret is something that is deeply hidden and potentially damaging.

The origin of the idiom is uncertain. Some sources suggest that it may have originated from the Victorian era when people often had actual skeletons stored in cupboards for various purposes. These skeletons were kept hidden from public view and were considered taboo or morbid.

However, other sources suggest that the idiom may have its roots in the phrase "skeleton at the feast," which was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to refer to an unwelcome or unpleasant guest at a gathering. Over time, the phrase may have evolved into "skeleton in the cupboard," emphasizing the idea of keeping an unpleasant secret hidden away.

The skeleton was found in the cupboard.

The idiom "skeleton in the closet" is closely related to "skeleton in the cupboard." It has the same meaning and is used interchangeably in both British and American English. The phrase "skeleton in the closet" emphasizes the idea that the secret is something that is hidden away and kept out of public view, just like a skeleton would be in a closet.

In addition to "skeleton in the cupboard" and "skeleton in the closet," there are other idioms that convey a similar meaning. One such idiom is "back-pocket," which is used to refer to a secret or piece of information that someone has and can use to their advantage. It implies that the person is keeping the information hidden, ready to be used when needed.

Another related idiom is "under the carpet," which is used to describe a situation where a problem or issue is deliberately concealed or ignored. It suggests that the problem or issue is being hidden away, much like a skeleton in a cupboard or closet. This idiom is often used when someone is trying to avoid facing the consequences or dealing with a difficult situation.

The exact origins of these idioms may be uncertain, but their meanings and usage are clear. They all convey the idea of hidden secrets or problems that someone is trying to keep hidden. These idioms serve as a reminder of the complexities and vulnerabilities that exist within each individual and highlight the importance of empathy and understanding towards others.

As language evolves and cultural perspectives shift, these idioms continue to be relevant in capturing the human experience. They prompt us to reflect on our own hidden aspects and consider the power of empathy and compassion in navigating the complexities of life.

Example usage


  1. She discovered that her father had a skeleton in the cupboard when she stumbled upon his secret gambling addiction.
  2. After years of marriage, John finally confessed to his wife about the skeleton in his cupboard - a criminal record from his youth.
  3. During the investigation, the detective uncovered the company's financial fraud, which had been the skeleton in the cupboard for years.

An analysis of the idiom:

The idiom "skeleton in the cupboard" is used to refer to a person's hidden or embarrassing secret that they try to keep concealed. The idiom draws an analogy to the idea of a literal skeleton hidden in a cupboard, which represents something unpleasant or scandalous that one wants to keep out of sight. It signifies a secret that can potentially cause damage to a person or their reputation if revealed.

In the given examples, the idiom is used to describe different situations where someone discovers or confesses to a hidden secret that can have negative consequences if exposed. The first example illustrates a daughter finding out about her father's gambling problem, which he had kept hidden from his family. The second example highlights a husband revealing to his wife his past criminal activities, which he had previously kept secret. The third example showcases a detective uncovering a company's long-hidden financial fraud, which had remained concealed for years. In all these cases, the idiom is employed to emphasize the presence of a secret that can have significant repercussions if it comes to light.

More "Secrets" idioms

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