Skeleton in the cupboard
We use this phrase to indicate that someone has a deep, possibly disturbing or embarrassing, secret which they have been desperately trying to hide from the public domain. Across the pond, the usual version of this idiom substitutes closet for cupboard. The sense is quite clear – if you hide something away in a cupboard, there is always the danger that someone, perhaps unwittingly, will discover it. The secret is never quite safe.
But why a skeleton? One of the many problems with killing someone, so I’m told, is how to dispose of the body. It takes considerable time and nerve to chop a cadaver up into pieces that can be easily disposed of. Perhaps those murderers, pressed for time, resorted to dumping the body into a cupboard where, if undiscovered, over time it would decompose into a pile of bones. It is hard to imagine, though, even in times which we delude ourselves into thinking were much more lawless than our own, that this was a regular occurrence.
We have come across the grave robbers or resurrectionists on a number of occasions. They fuelled the medical profession’s thirst for human bodies to dissect to better understand the workings of the human anatomy by disturbing freshly dug graves. The threat of a loved one being desecrated in this way was a very real fear for people in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was only the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 that put an end to the illicit trade. It may be that having dissected their poor victim, the doctor had trouble disposing of the bones and kept the in a cupboard.
Alternatively, it has been suggested that so tainted with the suspicion of grave robbing were doctors, that they were wary of exhibiting an anatomical skeleton in their surgery, preferring to keep it under wraps. We are in danger of straying into the realm of fantasy and it may just be that as murder was a crime most heinous and a skeleton was the natural result of the act. Figuratively, a skeleton could be seen to represent a dark, embarrassing secret that someone is keen to hide from view.
The phrase first appeared in print in 1815 in Joseph Adams’ Philosophical Treatise on the Hereditary Peculiarities of the Human Race; “cautions on cautions are multiplied, to conceal the skeleton in the closet or to prevent its escape”. The appearance of a figurative skeleton in an anatomical treatise is a tad ironic but the sense is clear. William Thackeray wrote in Punch in 1845 that “there is a skeleton in every house”. It is hard to believe that he meant it literally. More likely, he was using it figuratively, a suspicion confirmed ten years ago when he returned to the idiom in his novel, The Newcomes, the Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family; “it is from these that we shall come at some particulars regarding the Newsome family, which will show us that they have a skeleton or two in their closets..”
Cupboard did not appear until 1860. Lady Scott, who also wrote the Hen-pecked Husband, penned a novel in two volumes called The Skeleton in the Cupboard. As a noun closet was used to describe a small room for study or prayer and then from 1610 a room for storage. It seemed to have fallen out of favour in England during the 19th century, perhaps because it had been appropriated to describe the privy, the water closet. The Americans seemingly had no such scruples. A skeleton in the cupboard of the prurient Victorians, perhaps.