Q From Martin Sturmer: I can understand why a skeleton in the closet should mean an embarrassing fact that’s best kept secret, but how did it come into existence?
A Being British, my figurative skeletons are in a cupboard rather than a closet. I learned the idiom that way in childhood, a form that's still the more common one, though the version with closet is also found.
Such hidden embarrassments aren’t limited to family disgrace or private misdemeanour:
RBS chief Stephen Hester has gone as far as he can to prepare expectations that the bailed-out bank will be slapped with a big fine when watchdogs around the globe finally finish their investigations into the manipulation of interest rates. But Libor is not the only skeleton in the cupboard for this industry.
Observer, 28 Oct. 2012.
A tale often repeated links the phrase to the difficulties surgeons faced, before the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, in obtaining cadavers for teaching students. They sometimes did so illegally, as the famous case of Burke and Hare made very public. After bodies had been thoroughly dissected, so the story goes, the surgeons had to hide the skeletons, as they were evidence of a crime. It’s sometimes suggested instead that it arose from a murder in a family in which the body had been hidden away, only later to be found in a mummified state, close enough to a skeleton for folkloric purposes. We may disregard these tales.
The idea that a skeleton was a figurative representation of a secret shame was once thought to be the inspiration of William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote in an article in Punch in 1845 that “There is a skeleton in every house.” In a novel ten years later, The Newcomes; Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family, he wrote, “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.”
However, we now know that it appeared much earlier in the century:
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.
A Philosophical Treatise on the Hereditary Peculiarities of the Human Race, by Joseph Adams, 1815, quoted in a review by an anonymous physician in the Eclectic Review of November 1816. This is the first work that set out modern principles of genetic inheritance; Adams is discussing the shame associated with congenital disease.
So the original is actually closet. The earliest example of the cupboard version I can find is in the Morning Post in October 1858 and then as the title of a book by Lady Harriet Anne Scott in 1860.
Why the shift? At the time the phrase first appeared, closet in British English could mean either a cupboard or a private room for retirement or study. My impression is that though the verb survived, the noun closet slowly fell out of use in both senses in Britain during the nineteenth century, perhaps because the rise of water closet (WC), using closet in the 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.