Understanding the Idiom: "skeleton in the cupboard" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
  • skeleton in the closet (US)

The phrase “skeleton in the cupboard” is a common idiom used to describe a hidden secret or shameful truth that someone wants to keep hidden from others. This expression has been around for centuries and is often used in everyday conversations.

The Origin of the Phrase

The origin of this idiom can be traced back to medieval times when people believed that spirits or ghosts would haunt their homes if they were not properly buried. To avoid this, people would bury their loved ones secretly and keep their skeletons hidden in cupboards or closets. This practice led to the metaphorical use of the phrase as we know it today.

Usage and Examples

This idiom is commonly used when referring to someone’s past mistakes, embarrassing secrets, or scandals that they want to keep hidden from others. For example, if someone says “I have a skeleton in my cupboard,” it means they have something shameful or embarrassing that they don’t want anyone else to know about.

Another example could be when discussing politics: “There are many skeletons in politicians’ cupboards.” In this context, it means there are many secrets and scandals that politicians try to hide from the public eye.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “skeleton in the cupboard”

The phrase “skeleton in the cupboard” is a common idiom used to describe a shameful or embarrassing secret that someone is trying to keep hidden. The origins of this phrase can be traced back to early 19th century England, where it was commonly used by upper-class families who had secrets they wanted to keep hidden from society.

During this time period, etiquette and social status were highly valued, and any scandalous behavior could ruin a family’s reputation. Therefore, many families would try to hide their secrets by locking them away in a cupboard or room where no one could find them.

Over time, the phrase “skeleton in the cupboard” became more widely used as people began using it metaphorically to describe any kind of secret that someone was keeping hidden. Today, it remains a popular idiom in English-speaking countries around the world.

To better understand how this idiom has evolved over time and its significance in different cultures, let’s take a closer look at some examples of how it has been used throughout history.

Early Usage

In early 19th century England, the phrase “skeleton in the cupboard” was primarily used by wealthy families who were concerned about maintaining their social status. They would often go to great lengths to hide any scandals or shameful behavior from society by locking away evidence of these actions in cupboards or rooms within their homes.

Modern Usage

Today, the phrase “skeleton in the cupboard” is still commonly used as an idiom to describe any kind of secret that someone is trying to keep hidden. It has also been adapted into other languages and cultures around the world with similar meanings.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “skeleton in the cupboard”

The idiom “skeleton in the cupboard” is a common expression used to describe a hidden secret or shameful past that someone wants to keep hidden. This phrase has been used for many years and has evolved over time, resulting in variations that are used in different regions around the world.

One variation of this idiom is “skeleton in the closet,” which is commonly used in American English. Another variation is “skeletons in the closet,” which implies that there may be multiple secrets being kept hidden. In British English, people often use the phrase “skeletons in the cupboard,” which means essentially the same thing as its American counterpart.

This idiom can be used to describe any type of secret or scandalous information that someone wants to keep hidden from others. It could refer to anything from an embarrassing childhood memory to a criminal record.

In some cases, this expression can also be used metaphorically. For example, it might be said that a company has a “skeleton in its cupboard” if it has engaged in unethical business practices or if there are rumors of corruption within its ranks.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “skeleton in the cupboard”


One common synonym for “skeleton in the cupboard” is “skeleton in the closet.” Both phrases refer to a shameful or embarrassing secret that someone is trying to keep hidden. Another similar expression is “dirty laundry,” which can also be used to describe personal secrets that one would rather not have exposed.


While there may not be a direct opposite of “skeleton in the cupboard,” there are certainly phrases that convey a more positive or open attitude towards sharing personal information. For example, someone who has nothing to hide might say they have an “open book policy” or they are an “open book.” On the other hand, someone who enjoys sharing intimate details about themselves might be described as having “no filter.”

Cultural Insights:

The concept of keeping skeletons in cupboards (or closets) is not unique to English-speaking cultures. In Japan, for example, there is a similar idiom called “kimonoteni,” which translates roughly to “the thing hidden behind one’s kimono.” Similarly, many cultures around the world place a high value on maintaining appearances and avoiding public embarrassment at all costs.

Understanding these synonyms and antonyms can help us better grasp the nuances of this popular idiom and how it relates to different cultural contexts.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “skeleton in the cupboard”

Exercise 1: Contextualizing the Idiom

Read a short story or article that uses the idiom “skeleton in the cupboard”. Identify how it is used in context and what it means. Try to use it yourself in a sentence or two.


“The politician’s opponents were quick to point out his skeletons in the cupboard during his campaign.”

Meaning: The politician had some hidden secrets or shameful past that could harm his reputation if revealed.

Exercise 2: Creating Your Own Sentences

Think of situations where you can use this idiom. Write down at least five different sentences using “skeleton in the cupboard” appropriately.


“I’m afraid I have a skeleton in my own cupboard that I don’t want anyone else to know about.”

Exercise 3: Role-playing Scenarios

Practice using this idiom by role-playing scenarios with a partner. Create situations where one person has a secret they don’t want others to know about, while their partner tries to uncover it using questions related to skeletons in cupboards.


Person A: “I heard you got fired from your last job. Is there something you’re not telling me?”

Person B: “No, there’s no skeleton hiding in my cupboard! I just didn’t get along with my boss.”

By practicing these exercises, you’ll be able to confidently use this idiomatic expression when speaking or writing English. Remember, practice makes perfect!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “skeleton in the cupboard”

When using idioms, it is important to understand their meaning and usage. The idiom “skeleton in the cupboard” refers to a shameful or embarrassing secret that someone wants to keep hidden from others. However, there are some common mistakes that people make when using this idiom.

One mistake is using the wrong preposition. The correct preposition is “in”, not “on” or “at”. For example, you should say “There’s a skeleton in his cupboard” instead of “There’s a skeleton on his cupboard”.

Another mistake is using the plural form of the word “cupboard”. The idiom only uses the singular form, so you should say “skeleton in the cupboard” instead of “skeletons in the cupboards”.

It is also important to use this idiom appropriately. It should only be used when referring to serious secrets that could cause harm if revealed. Using it for trivial matters can diminish its impact and make it seem less meaningful.

Finally, it is important not to confuse this idiom with similar ones such as “a closet full of skeletons”. While they may have similar meanings, they are not interchangeable and should be used correctly.

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