English has a surprising number of idioms that refer to skeletons, including "skeleton in the closet" and "skeleton key." Today, we investigate the meanings and origins.
Halloween is nearly here. So today we’re going to talk about some frightening phrases and their origins.
Specifically, phrases with the word “skeleton.”
A skeleton is made up of all the bones in a body—from the femur in your upper leg, which is the biggest bone in the human body—to the stapes, the teeny tiny bone that conveys sound from your outer ear to your inner ear.
We all have a skeleton. But hopefully, not all of us have a “skeleton in the closet.”
Skeleton in the Closet
That’s because a “skeleton in the closet” refers to a dark family secret—a source of pain, shame, or tragedy. The expression evokes the image of a household that seems perfectly normal—until you start poking around and find an unpleasant surprise.
Fiction is full of such skeletons. TV’s “Downton Abbey” had a ton, from Lady Mary’s indiscretion in season one to Lady Edith’s “trip to the continent” in season four. (We won’t spoil anything, but suffice it to say that both women had a secret they were desperate to keep.)
Edgar Allen Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” had a literal skeleton in the closet—or rather, under the floor—that he was trying to hide. And Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” featured the ultimate skeleton in the closet—a family secret kept under lock and key—until the day it escaped.
FYI, this term was first used in literature by William Thackery, in 1845, but it’s believed to have been used earlier in common talk.
Let’s look now at “skeleton crew.” A skeleton crew refers to a team of workers that’s been pared to the bone—reduced to the minimum number of people needed to get the job done. For example, a restaurant might normally have five servers on the floor and one person bussing tables. On a quiet night, though, they might get by with a skeleton crew of just three servers, with each of them taking turns cleaning tables.
This phrase draws on one of the shades of meaning of “skeleton”: the bare outline or most necessary features of something.
This meaning is also used in the phrase “skeleton key.”
A skeleton key is a key that’s made to open many different locks. It can do this because most of the pointy “bits” on its “blade” have been filed away, leaving only one bit at the end. That bit allows you to turn the key and throw back the bolt on many different locks.
In other words, a skeleton key uses the bare minimum of metal needed to do the job.
By the way, old-fashioned skeleton keys kind of look like a skeleton. But that’s a coincidence, not the cause of the name.
Skeleton at the Feast
Here’s an interesting phrase you may have never heard: “the skeleton at the feast.” This skeleton is meant to remind us that life holds tragedy as well as pleasure—that even when we’re feeling most alive, death is always nearby.
This idea is first mentioned by Plutarch, a Greek biographer born way back in 46 CE. He wrote the “Moralia,” essays on a whole range of ethical, political, and literary topics. In one of the essays, he describes the
“… skeleton which in Egypt they are wont, with fair reason, to bring in and expose at their parties, urging the guests to remember that what it is now, they soon shall be … it does not incline the guests to drinking and enjoyment, but rather to a mutual friendliness and affection.”
Plutarch is saying that ancient Egyptians actually brought a real skeleton, or a wooden image of a corpse, to the dinner table.
A skeleton at the feast is also mentioned by Petronius, a Roman author who was one of Plutarch’s contemporaries. In his comic novel “The Satyricon,” he describes a dinner party given by Trimalchio, an immensely rich freedman—who is a former slave.
During the party, Trimalchio brings in “… a silver skeleton, put together in such a way that its joints and backbone could be pulled out and twisted in all directions.” He flings the skeleton around, so it falls into different postures. Then he recites this poem:
“O woe, woe, man is only a dot:
Hell drags us off and that is the lot;
So let us live a little space,
At least while we can feed our face.”
So, whether you take Plutarch’s advice and embrace friendship this Halloween—or take Petronius’ advice and just “feed your face” with candy—we hope you have a wonderful, safe holiday.
More ‘Skeleton’ Phrases
There are so many more “skeleton” phrases out there! Some are still in use; others, like “skeleton gig,” meaning a bare-bones carriage, are archaic. Here are just a few for you to chew on:
- skeleton map, skeleton plan
- skeleton battalion, skeleton company
- skeleton pack
- skeleton bob
- skeleton roof
- skeleton break
- skeleton gig
- skeleton drill
- skeleton larva, skeleton shrimp
- skeleton suit
- skeleton weed
Ammer, Christine. Skeleton in the closet. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
Brewer, E. Cobham. Skeleton at the Feast. The Reader’s Handbook of Famous Names in Fiction, Allusions, References, Proverbs, Plots, Stories, and Poems. J.B. Lippincott Company, 1910.
Dent, Susie. Skeleton. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.
Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Lock, skeleton, Gaius Petronius Arbiter, Plutarch. (subscription required, accessed October 25, 2017).
Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Skeleton (subscription required, accessed October 25, 2017).
Petronius. The Satyricon (J.P. Sullivan, translator). Penguin, 2011
Plutarch. Delphi Complete Works of Plutarch. Delphi Classics, 2013.
Visser, Margaret. The Rituals of Dinner. Open Road Media, 2015.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.