Why do we say "A skeleton in the closet"?

Well-Known Expressions

A skeleton in the closet

Meaning:

Despite appearances to the contrary, there is a well-hidden secret that could be damaging or embarrassing.

Background:

This proverb traces back to the prolific 19th century English novelist and satirist, William Makepeace Thackeray.

In 1845 he wrote in Punch:

"There is a skeleton in every house—and mine—no—I wasn't exactly a skeleton in that garment, but suffered secret torments in it, to which, as I take it, those of the Inquisition were trifles."

Punch was a British satirical magazine founded in 1841. It was very influential up until the 1950s when its circulation began to fall and it went into a slow decline, closing in 1992. Among Punch's many claims to fame is the coining of the word cartoon in the sense of a humorous illustration; before then, from the Middle Ages onwards, the word had been used to describe the preparatory drawing for a piece of art.

Later, in his best known work, Vanity Fair (1848), Thackery writes:

"Have you ever had a difference with a dear friend? How his letters, written in the period of love and confidence, sicken and rebuke you! What a dreary mourning it is to dwell upon those vehement protests of dead affection! What lying epitaphs they make over the corpse of love! What dark, cruel comments upon Life and Vanities! Most of us have got or written drawers full of them. They are closet-skeletons which we keep and shun. Osborne trembled long before the letter from his dead son."

A few years later, in his 1854 book The Newcomers: Memoirs of a Most Respectible Family, Thackery returns to the theme of skeletons:

"And it is from these that we shall arrive at 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.

Alphabetical list of expressions

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