My recent discussion of skeleton in the closet/cupboard led, as I might have expected, to numerous messages about the scope and meaning closet and cupboard in American and British English.
British English doesn’t much use closet as a noun, though the verb still has common currency. Water closet for toilet, lavatory or loo is archaic. Our closets are nearly always figurative. We have borrowed the American phrase to come out of the closet, though we couldn’t imagine being in one to start with (come out of the cupboard doesn’t have the same portentous connotations.) We also have closet racists and other closeted types with skeletons in their cupboards.
My understanding is that American cupboards always hang on walls, as British ones can also do. Several US readers argued that for them cupboard implies shelves, with little room for a skeleton, while closet implies standing, or at least hanging room. To fit in a North American cupboard, they implied, the skeleton would have to be that of a small animal. Both Americans and Brits use cabinet for hanging cupboards with shelves, especially in kitchen cabinet or bathroom cabinet, though it’s a less homely and more upmarket term that implies decorative design features. British cupboards are often also tall floor-standing storage spaces. Sometimes they’re built in, but they’re still cupboards.
One American reader wrote, “You keep your clothes in a cupboard?” To which I replied equally briefly, “No. Mine are in a wardrobe”, a large free-standing cupboard with specialist fittings, a feature that’s less common in the US, I believe, though the word is understood (the item was once also called by the French term armoire, though this has now been adopted for a cabinet with doors that enclose a television or entertainment centre and its ancillaries).
But that led me to think about the room off our bedroom, just large enough to insert one’s body into, which the architect no doubt intended for clothes but which we use for miscellaneous storage because we already have two wardrobes. Though uncommon in Britain such little rooms are, I’m told, standard in American bedrooms and are always called closets. We call ours a cupboard. Even if we used it for clothes, I still wouldn’t call it a closet, because that word isn’t in my idiolect. How would I describe it in that case? I’m not sure. The architect probably labelled it built-in wardrobe, though that would surely be a pretentious title for a space of its paltry dimensions. Scots might call it a clothes press. In Australia, a reader told me, such storage areas are now both desirable and common and are called built-in wardrobes, the last word often being abbreviated to robe.
A couple of centuries ago, closet was common in British English in two senses, that of a small private room or inner chamber for retirement or study and for a small room, leading off a larger one, hence any small storage space. This fits the etymology, as closet is from the Old French closet, a diminutive of Latin clos, closed. In its early days, a cupboard was literally a board on which to store or display cups and other vessels, then a piece of furniture, one that we British would now call a sideboard, and also a storage space, usually one with shelves.
Closet slowly fell out of use during the nineteenth century, perhaps because the rise of water closet (WC), using closet in its sense of a small private room, made it a less suitable word for polite conversation in Victorian times. For whatever reason, the shift didn't take place in the US, where closet has always been dominant, with cupboard a lesser used variant. The partial shift back towards closet in the UK seems to be the result of American influence.