Q: I was teaching Hamlet for the first time in decades and we joked about the use of “closet” in the scene where Hamlet stabs Polonius. I wonder how the usage evolved from meaning a small room to a state of secrecy, especially about being gay? It also seems to me that the Brits may use wardrobes more than we do, so the use of “closet” in its gay sense might not work the same way for them.
A: You’ll be surprised to hear that the noun “closet” is now used in Britain as well as America in both of the senses you mention—literal and figurative.
“Closet” in its literal sense—a small room for storing clothes, linens, or supplies—“has been the standard term in North American use since at least the late 19th century,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.
But “during the later 20th century,” the OED adds, “it has increasingly been used in British English to refer to such a place used for storing clothes, although cupboard and (especially) wardrobe are still used in this sense.”
“Closet” in its figurative sense—a state of hidden homosexuality—has also jumped the pond. It has appeared in writing in the US since the early 1960s and in the UK since at least the early 1980s, according to citations in the OED and in slang dictionaries.
So where “closet” is concerned, speakers of American English and British English are on the same page.
The word has had a long and interesting history. First recorded in English in the 14th century, it originally had meanings far removed from either clothes or homosexuality.
“Closet” evolved from a noun in Old and Middle French, closet (a small enclosure or small field). The –et ending was a diminutive added to clos (an enclosed space), a noun that was in turn derived from the Latin clausum (a closed place, an enclosure).
The word first reached England as the Anglo-Norman closet (also, but rarely, spelled closette), which meant a private room or chapel. And from Anglo-Norman, the OED says, it entered English, in which it originally meant “a private or secluded room; an inner chamber.”
The OED’s earliest example is from an English translation, done sometime before 1387, of the Polychronicon, a religious and historical chronicle written in Latin in the mid-1300s by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden:
“Remigius from his childhode dwelled in a closett.” (The reference is to St. Remigius, who lived in the 5th and 6th centuries, and the OED says that “closett,” the translator’s rendering of the Latin reclusorio, in this case meant “a monastic cell.”)
In its early uses, “closet” generally meant a place set aside for a particular purpose, like a private chapel or private pew, a monarch’s private apartment, a council chamber, or a room for study, devotion, or contemplation. (Most of these uses are now “historical,” the OED says, meaning they’re found only in reference to the past.)
So when Hamlet visits his mother’s closet and kills Polonius, who’s hiding behind a tapestry, the term refers to the Queen’s private apartment.
The purposes of a medieval “closet” weren’t all so stageworthy. Since the 1400s, the word has also been used to mean a toilet or privy. Compound terms include “closet of ease” (1600s); “water closet” (1700s, first shortened to “W.C.” in the 1800s); and “earth closet” (1800s).
In the 1500s “closet” came to mean a storage space. The OED’s definition is “a recess or space adjoining a room, generally closed off by a door or doors reaching to the floor, and used for storage of clothes, linen, utensils, household supplies, etc.; a built-in cupboard; a wardrobe.”
Oxford’s earliest use is from a 1532 entry in a ledger that includes the cost of “makyng a Closett in my chamber.” (Cited from A Researcher’s Glossary of Words Found in Historical Documents of East Anglia, compiled by David Yaxley, 2003.)
Subsequent examples include “Confectionaire or Closet of sweet meat” (1616); and “Closset of books” (1686).
In the 18th century, Jane Austen wrote that a storage place entirely filled with shelves should not be called a closet: “I have a very nice chest of drawers and a closet full of shelves—so full indeed that there is nothing else in it, and it should therefore be called a cupboard rather than a closet, I suppose.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation, which is from a letter written May 17, 1799, during a visit to Bath.)
As we mentioned earlier, “closet” in the sense of a built-in wardrobe appeared in late 19th-century American usage and emigrated to Britain a century or so later.
So much for the word’s literal uses. But almost from the beginning, “closet” had been associated with concealment. Figurative uses having to do with hiding and secrecy began to emerge in the early 15th century.
This is the OED’s earliest such use: “Within a lytel closet of his entendement [intention].” It’s from The Book of the Pylgremage of the Sowle, a 1413 translation, first published in 1483, from the French of Guillaume de Deguileville.
Later Oxford citations include “the closette Where god delyteth to make his resydence” (1499), “closet of her heart” (1549), “the Closet of your Conscience” (1633), “the Closet of a Man’s Breast” (sometime before 1677), “the dark closet of his bosom” (1766), and “the innermost closet of her thought and life” (1911).
Adjectivally, too, “closet” has denoted secrecy. The OED has examples like “closet duties” (1639); “closet sins” (sometime before 1656); “closet good works” (1657); and “closet memoirs” (1706).
The familiar phrase “skeleton in the closet” was “brought into literary use by Thackeray” in 1855, the OED says, though it was “known to have been current at an earlier date.” (Here “skeleton” means “a secret source of shame or pain to a family or person,” the dictionary says.)
In the later 19th century, other things than skeletons were said to be “out of the closet” once revealed. The OED has this example: “Seeing the spectre of prohibition dragged out of the closet in every political campaign” (Galveston Daily News, March 6, 1892).
Finally, in the 20th century, the adjective “closet” was used to describe a person who was hiding something. The OED defines this usage, which is sometimes meant ironically, as “not open about something concerning oneself which, if revealed, could cause problems or embarrassment.” Examples include “closet drinker” (1948), “closet liberal” (1967), “closet Papist” (1985), and “closet romantic” (2005).
So it was probably inevitable that “closet” would come to be associated with covert or unacknowledged homosexuality.
In the earliest such example, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang dates “closet queen” to graffiti observed in 1959, but the evidence can’t be confirmed. The first published examples are from the early 1960s, and they’re also adjectival; Random House and Green’s Dictionary of Slang cite “closet fags” (1961), and the OED has “closet queen” (1963).
The OED also cites “in the closet” (secretly gay) and “come out of the closet” (to acknowledge being gay; both from 1968). Green’s has “open the closet” (to expose a person as gay; 1972).
And Oxford has examples of “out of the closet” (1970), “to come out” (1971), the adjectives “closeted” and “out” (both 1974), and the verb “out” (to expose someone’s homosexuality; 1990 in both the US and the UK).
We’ll end with a puzzle. In the sense of acknowledging one’s homosexuality, there are 1940s examples of the verb phrase “come out”—but without the “closet” that appeared decades later. And those early examples may have nothing to do with figurative closets. Here they are, courtesy of the OED:
“Come out, to become progressively more and more exclusively homosexual with experience” (a definition from Gershon A. Legman’s appendix to George W. Henry’s book Sex Variants, 1941).
“Come out, to be initiated into the mysteries of homosexuality” (by the pseudonymous “Swasarnt Nerf,” in Gay Guides for 1949, edited by Hugh Hagius).
Oxford suggests that these early uses of “come out” were not about closets but were “perhaps influenced” by the social debut sense of the phrase, as when a debutante “comes out.”
That may be true. Or perhaps the early connection between “closet” and “come out” lived underground in those days and has yet to be discovered. Time will tell.