What Does Skeletons in the Closet Mean?

Skeletons in the Closet Meaning

Definition: A shameful secret that could seriously harm a person’s reputation if people discovered it.

The metaphor in this expression is clear. It likens a family or personal secret to a murder victim hidden in a closet.

Origin of Skeletons in the Closet

There is no source material showing that this metaphor got its beginnings from a literal event. While it is possible that someone somewhere was hiding skeletons in his or her closet (stranger things have happened), there isn’t a known historical event that points to this specific phrase.

Instead, it first appeared as a metaphor in the early 1800s. Thackeray, Dickens, George Meredith, as well as other nineteenth-century British writers used the expression in their novels.

Not limited to murder victims, the expression is metaphorical and can refer to any shameful secret.

Examples of Skeletons in the Closet

skeleton-in-the-closet-idiomIn this conversation, a mother and daughter are discussing the new boyfriend the daughter has.

Daughter: I’m inviting my new boyfriend over for dinner tonight, so you and Dad can finally meet him.

Mother: Great! Just don’t let your father learn his last name.

Daughter: Why not?

Mother: He wants to do a background check on him to make sure he isn’t some type of criminal.

Daughter: Oh my goodness! Why would he do that?

Mother: Your father believes everyone has skeletons in the closet, and he just wants to make sure you’re safe.

what does skeletons in your closet meanIn this example, two coworkers are discussing silly beliefs that their parents have.

Dave: My mom always tries to convince everyone that she can speak French, even though she can’t.

Ben: That’s so strange. Why?

Dave: She thinks speaking French would make her seem high class.

Ben: Ah, I see. My Dad does something similar. He tells everyone he inherited his money, even though he earned it all himself.

Dave: Why? He should be proud of earning it!

Ben: I agree, but he actually made his money from designing a new way to flush toilets. He’s embarrassed by it, and considers it to be a skeleton in the closet. He doesn’t want anyone to know about it.

More Examples

This excerpt is about allowing some criminals to erase records of their crimes after serving their punishment.

  • While Berkeley law students have been serving clean-slate clients, University of California researchers have been studying the results. We already know that clean-slate interventions increase a person’s ability to get a job and provide him or her with a profound sense of relief: No more skeletons in the closet. –LA Times

This excerpt is from a person trying to discover proof of wrongdoing.

  • So as they continue this obscene fight to keep their team — the latest blow Shelly Sterling’s threat Tuesday to the New York Times that, if necessary, she will depose every NBA owner to expose any skeletons in the closet — they need to know that they are fighting for an ideal that has been forever lost. –LA Times


The phrase skeletons in the closet refers to any shameful fact that a person tries to cover up so that no one else will ever learn about it.