Where Does The Phrase ‘Skeletons In The Closet’ Come From?

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Idioms have filtered into our everyday language but often, unless you’re in the field of literature or journalism, you might not be familiar with where the phrases come from.

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An example of this is the phrase “a skeleton in the closet” or some cases “A skeleton in the cupboard.” We tend to see this expression on the television or in newspapers after a scandal comes out and we tend to take for granted what it truly means. 

What it Means to Have Skeletons in Your Closet

The idiomatic expression “a skeleton in the closet” refers to a hidden source of something scandalous or shameful. This is most commonly used when referring to something in the past that will cause potential ruin to a person or group of people when exposed. It also signifies an undisclosed fact about a person that would damage his social standing among the community were it revealed. 

In simple words, to have a skeleton in the closet means you have secrets and other past memories that you’d prefer to keep hidden from the world.

A skeleton can vary from things you’ve done such as one-night stands, to group feuds or betrayals, or even to extreme situations of something seen or done to you such as theft and murder. It doesn’t always have to be dark. Some “skeletons” may be of the embarrassing nature, such as awkward moments that are too awful to think about. 

It was in 19th century England that the phrase was first used. At that point, the English used the word “closet” to mean a water closet or a lavatory—a seemingly possible hiding place for skeletons, hypothetically speaking. The phrase later developed into “a skeleton in the cupboard” for the people of England, while “skeleton in the closet” refers to a hidden place in a wardrobe became more common in the States.

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Where ‘Skeletons In Your Closet’ Comes From

There are several theories about the origin of the expression. No matter where you trace it back to, the phrase came to mean the same thing and insinuated a dark past in the life of a seemingly innocent individual, waiting to be exposed to the public. The closet or cupboard as fixed imagery gives a sense of the constant risk of discovery.

The exact origin is vague enough that all uses deserve exploration when considering how a skeleton, a symbol of death or mourning, became used as a phrase to refer to something embarrassing or scandalous.

There are numerous citations and stories of the usage of this popular phrase.

The Eclectic Review

One of the first instances of this phrase occurred in the early 1800s. It was printed in an article by William Hendry Stowell, published in the 1816 United Kingdom monthly periodical The Eclectic Review. It was used to discuss the shame of a disease that is infectious or hereditary.

He explained in the excerpt that there are two great sources of panic in the situation of carrying a hereditary disease: the danger of contagion and the anxiety of leaving a legacy for later generations by way of a hereditary disease. The dread of passing along a disease often won out and caused men to conceal those skeletons in their closets.

Gothic origins

A similar turn of phrase was used in Gothic novels of the Victorian era. A master of such tales, Edgar Allan Poe, used it quite effectively.

There are two instances where Edgar Allan Poe used the imagery of skeletons in the closet to drive a point home in his prose. In his piece called “The Black Cat” from 1845, he recounts the way a character dispelled the suspicions of others regarding his wife’s mysterious death. Seemingly unafraid of any further consequences, he smacked the wall that hid his wife’s corpse. In a turn of story, the wall fell and his accusers saw the literal skeleton in his closet or, in this case, wall.

Edgar Allan Poe was also known for using this turn of phrase in his poetic masterpieces including “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” which are classic poems about regret.

The body snatchers theory

Another assumption suggests that the expression came from the infamous era of body snatchers. Before 1832, the use of corpses for medical research was frowned upon by British royalty and parliament. In order for doctors to study anatomy and teach their students, they had to steal dead bodies for their studies. The theory goes that the doctors would hide illegally obtained corpses and skeletons in cupboards or closets.

While this theory has no real evidence, the claim has been widely told. To this day, there are occasional discoveries of hidden skeletons inside house walls.

Criminal imagery

‘A skeleton in the closet’ later developed into the idea of referring to grim evidence of a crime or murder. Famous Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray adopted the phrase and used it in his literature pieces and novels.

In an 1845 piece, he referred to “a skeleton in every house” and in another piece from 1854-55 explicitly mentioned the exact phrase “skeletons in closets.” It was never known whether Thackeray was suggesting actual skeletons were inside people’s homes, or whether he was merely using a turn of phrase to aid his readers’ imagination such as authors like Edgar Allan Poe. 

As much as this idiom is generally seen as figurative, one English philosopher decided to give it a literal turn. Jeremy Bentham, a mid-18th to 19th-century philosopher is the world’s only real skeleton in the closet. In his will, Bentham decided to preserve his skeleton in a wooden closet with a glass front, which would then be publicly displayed in University College in London. 

The expression “skeleton in the closet” was later widely used in America and morphed from referring to hiding something criminal, to being used for those who decided to “come out of the closet” in the 1960s. By the 2000s, it was shortened to “come out” which implied being true to yourself, though the original phrase and meaning are still used and understood.

Does Everybody Have Skeletons In Their Closet? 

A skeleton in the closet in the traditional sense is admittedly not a desirable part of our life or past. However, they are still an inevitable part of life.

There are many reasons why we keep a part of ourselves hidden and private be they social, legal, moral, or spiritual. With the rampant use of social media and nearly every part of life being exposed to the world, hiding skeletons in the closet remains the last way for many people to bury their past so they can live free of shame and humiliation that could become exposed on the internet’s stage. 

As humans, we probably all have some sort of skeleton in our closet. The skeletons we have may not be murder or a disastrous scandal, but are often some piece of our past we would simply prefer to remain hidden.

No one goes through this life completely perfect. The important thing to remember is that those who own such skeletons are just like the rest of us. If a skeleton happens to come out into the light of day, the issue should be acknowledged and restitution made where possible, but the person should still be seen for who they are and who you know them to be. 

Known or Unknown Skeletons

It’s important to remember that it’s fairly normal for people to have secrets or skeletons in their closet. If they become a burden that hangs over you and starts defining your life, it’s time to expose them and deal with them as they are.  


Sources

  1. Kushnik, Hannah. “In the Closet: A Close Read of the Metaphore.” Personal Narrative, AMA Journal of Ethics, August 2010. journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/closet-close-read-metaphor/2010-08

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