Famous Sayings: #34 — ‘Skeletons in the Closet’

October 30, 2016

I think she may have a few skeletons in the closet.

Jerermy Bentham, skeleton in the closet, skeletons in the closet, skeleton in the cupboard
Jeremy Bentham, an 18th/19th century philosopher, became an actual “skeleton” in a “closet.” Bentham’s body is kept on public display in University College in London per his requests. Image from Flickr by Matt Brown

Tomorrow is Halloween. Today, I would like to share my research on a phrase that may have a spooky history.

Did you know that the British usually use the term “Skeleton in the cupboard” in the United Kingdom? (Well, if you’re in the U.K., of course you do.)

Americans usually use the term “Skeletons in the closet.”

In England, the word “closet” is often a shortened version of the term “water closet,” which is a restroom. The term “closet” originally referred to a cupboard or a private room, like a den or study.

Since a restroom would be a weird place to put a skeleton, it makes since that the British would use they form they do, although the use of “closet” might be coming back there.

What Does the Famous Saying Mean?

“Skeleton in the closet” is often used with the plural “skeletons.” but not matter how many skeletons there are, the saying basically means the same thing.

When someone has a “Skeleton in the closet,” that person has a secret that is too shameful to let (outsiders) know about it. Usually, there is a family secret that may or may not be kept from the youngest members of the family. If that secret got out, it might destroy the family or ruin someone’s reputation or societal standing.

How Was the Phrase Come About?

Now, Three sources I consulted — Gary Martin (at The Phrase Finder), Tim Bowen, and Michael Quinion — each mention the connection made between the phrase “skeleton in the closet/cupboard” with the circumstances leading up to the U.K.’s Anatomy Act of 1832. Before the act was passed, body snatchers would sell corpses in the black market for scientists and doctors to dissect.

One suggestion is that the phrase came about in reference to the body snatchers. Bower’s article says that the saying originated due to the medical profession in England. Until 1832, it was illegal for corpses to be studied unless they were the bodies of executed criminals. Also, it was rare for doctors to come across the bodies of executed criminals. As such, they kept the skeletons to study.

Additionally, people generally weren’t allowed to see the skeletons, so they were hidden. People assumed all doctors were keeping skeletons and the natural conclusion were that the skeletons were kept in cupboards.

Martin gave a little more info about this suggestion. The legend goes that bodies were kept for teaching purposes and hidden; much like Catholic priests were hidden in priest holes during the Elizabethan era.

Martin also said there are/were concealed corpses in walled-up homes, but those tend to be the bodies of unwanted infants.

However, there is no proof of any of this leading to the phrase “skeletons in the closet.” Quinion said to disregard those two factors in the creation of the saying.

More About the Body Snatchers

In 1506, James IV of Scotland allowed for the dissection of executed felons’ bodies by the Edinburgh Guild of Surgeons and Barbers. The practice was continued under King Henry VIII, but he only four such corpses a year.

The dissection of felons’ bodies was considered the ultimate, second earthly punishment for criminals. Although, In the Medieval era, it was believed that the dead could come back to life, so the dead should not be disturbed after burial.

By 1752, all hanged felon’s bodies were offered for dissection. But since there was a greater demand for corpses in order to study the human body and diseases, this led to the creation of the black market. In such a market, bodies were stolen from graveyards and hospital beds. Those who took part in retrieving bodies were called “Resurrection Men.”

The Anatomy Act of 1832 came about after the case of Burke and Hare. During the 1820’s, these “Ressurictionists” took to murdering people in order to sell their corpses on the black market. In London, May, Williams, and Bishop were tried for the murders of an Italian boy and three homeless people in connection to this practice (“The Rise”).

A neuro-anatomist and Fellow of the Royal Society by the name of Herbert Mayo pushed for reform. Mayo wanted a law to allow for more cadavers to be legally obtained for medical discovery and understanding. It would also help solve the problem of body snatchers. As the Great Reform Act of 1832 was passed, so was the Anatomy Act of 1832, which allowed for bodies of the poor and unclaimed bodies to be used for study (“Anatomy”).

Who First Used the Phrase “Skeleton in the Closet”?

According the sources I consulted, it appears the first known usage of the phrase came from England in the 19th century. In the UK monthly periodical The Eclectic Review (1816), William Hendry Stowell wrote:

Two great sources of distress are the danger of contagion and the apprehension of hereditary diseases. The dread of being the cause of misery to posterity has prevailed over men to conceal the skeleton in the closet

The skeleton was a metaphor for infections or hereditary disease (Martin). It should be noted that such an ailment has long been considered shameful.

A year before Stowell’s piece, there was something by Joseph Adams that featured the phrase. From A Philosophic Treatise on the Hereditary Peculiarities of the Human Race (1815):

In these, as in many other highly important questions, men seem afraid of enquiring after truth; cautions on cautions are multiplied, to conceal the skeleton in the closet or to prevent its escape.

The above excerpt was quoted in the Eclectic Review of November 1816 from an anonymous physician (Quinion).

How Did the Phrase Evolve?

The phrase was originally used as a reference to an embarrassing secret. It always has been, but the use might not have referred to anything sinister.

Martin says that William Makepeace Thackeray made reference to a “skeleton in the closet” as evidence of a murder in two of his Victorian works, in 1845 (which Quinion says that can be found in a Punch publication) and in 1854-55 (The Newcomes; memoirs of a most respectable family). From the latter:

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

As you can see from the above examples, the original form of the phrase has the term “closet.” The use of “cupboard” can be found in the Morning Post in October 1858. Also, it can be found in the title of a book by Lady Harriet Anne Scott in 1860 (Quinion). The term changed during the Victorian era as water closets became more prevalent (an unspeakable in polite conversation).

Today, the term “Coming out [of the closet]” is directly tied to the first phrase. The newer term was first used in the 1960’s as gay rights movement gained traction in the United States.

Works Cited

AETN UK. “The Rise of the Body Snatchers.” History(U.K.). Web. Retrieved 30 Oct 2016. <http://www.history.co.uk/study-topics/history-of-death/the-rise-of-the-body-snatchers>.

“The Anatomy Act of 1832.” King’s College London. Web. Retrieved 30 Oct 2016. <http://www.kingscollections.org/exhibitions/specialcollections/charles-dickens-2/italian-boy/anatomy-act>.

Bowen, Tim. “Phrase of the week: to have a skeleton in the cupboard.” Onestopenglish. Web. Retrieved 30 Oct 2016. <http://www.onestopenglish.com/community/your-english/phrase-of-the-week/phrase-of-the-week-to-have-a-skeleton-in-the-cupboard/145671.article>.

Martin, Gary. “A skeleton in the closet.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 29 Oct 2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/skeleton-in-the-closet.html>.

Quinion, Michael. “Skeleton in the closet.” World Wide Words. 5 July 2014. Web. Retrieved 30 Oct 2016. <http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-ske2.htm>.

“Skeleton in Your Closet.” Idiom Origins. Web. Retrieved 30 Oct 2016. <http://idiomorigins.net/skeleton-in-your-closet/>.


Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.