“Actually, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you for quite some time now, but I’ve never quite got round to it,” says this acquaintance and you look kind of skeptical, fearing the worst. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing unpleasant or surprising,” they go on. It gets even worse, of course, when they continue, “But I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.” You try to console them with a sympathetic, “Well, it can’t have been all that important, can it?” which doesn’t help at all because they immediately respond with, “Oh, but it was! I’ve been meaning to ask you for ages.”
By now, any normal human being would be dying to hear the 10,000 dollars question – I don’t think – and in this case I consider myself to be a normal human being despite what my detractors might say – so I usually add an inane word of encouragement, “Just don’t think about it and it will come to you.”
Now, should you try to help your absent-minded friend, or should you simply walk away from the unspoken enquiry? You see, the more suggestions we make, the closer we might get to things we really don’t want to talk about. You know: Was it about the time I … ? I’m really sorry about that. Or perhaps: I suppose you’ve been wondering why I … Yes, I wonder about that myself. I really do.
Before long, if you’re not careful, you’ve uncovered every skeleton in your closet, which is a phrase that was coined in 19th century England. The word ‘closet’ is used nowadays in England to mean ‘water closet’, that is, lavatory, which is not really the best place to hide a skeleton, but then, it is not the worst either; I mean, who would go delving around in your water closet looking for skeletons? In actual fact, come to think of it, the English nowadays prefer to use ‘a skeleton in the cupboard’. Skeletons in the ‘closet’ are definitely more common in the USA. You know how traditional, having so little of it, the Americans like to be.
‘A skeleton in the closet’ alluded to an apparently irreproachable person or family having a guilty secret waiting to be uncovered. The phrase was first used, I believe, by William Hendry Stowell, in the UK monthly periodical The Eclectic Review, 1816. The ‘skeleton’ in this case was disease, infectious or hereditary, that people were ashamed to admit to having. “Two great sources of distress are the danger of contagion and the apprehension of hereditary diseases. The dread of being the cause of misery to posterity has prevailed over men to conceal the skeleton in the closet,” is how the author put it.
Edgar Allen Poe, in The Black Cat from 1845, wrote of a man who had murdered his wife and entombed her in the wall of his dwelling, but not very well. He wrote, ‘”Gentlemen, I delight to have allayed your suspicions”, and here, through the mere frenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily upon that very portion of the brickwork behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom. The wall fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators.’
Prior to the UK’s 1832 Anatomy Act allowing the more extensive use of corpses for medical research, it was said that doctors would conceal in cupboards the illegally held skeletons they used for teaching. Although concealed skeletons are occasionally found walled-up in houses, they are usually those of unwanted infants. The Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray, in The Newcomes; memoirs of a most respectable family, 1854–55, wrote, “… 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’.”
The 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham is perhaps the best-known actual skeleton in a cupboard, but he did not wish to keep his skeleton a secret; he willed that his body be preserved in a wooden cabinet. It is on public display in University College, London.
The American expressions ‘come out of the closet’ or simply ‘come out’ date from the 1960s to indicate that someone had decided to broadcast his/her/or its sexual preferences to all and sundry as a matter of local, national and even global importance. Using the British version to declare one’s homosexuality doesn’t quite cut it. I mean who would want to “come out of a cupboard” – I mean, it sounds as if someone got caught with his/her/its hand in the “cookie jar” (I know; I am mixing my Englishes).
Personally I believe that homos and lesbos (which is how my ‘gay’ friends refer to themselves) came out of the closet, especially the men, when “cottaging” was all the rage. “Cottaging” was the habit of meeting in public toilets for illicit sex or as one dictionary puts it, “discreet acts of buggery performed in a toilet cubicle, often anonymous”. Given the gay abandon with which homos dedicated themselves to unprotected, random sex in those days and the inevitable outcome of HIV-AIDS, they really were dealing with “skeletons in the closet”.