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The meaning and origin of the expression: Make a clean breast of it

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Make a clean breast of it

Meaning

To make a full disclosure; to confess.

Origin

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun breast as 'the two soft protuberances situated on the thorax in females'. The meaning used in 'make a clean breast of it' is an earlier and less literal one. The 'breast' there is the seat of the one's emotions and secrets; one's 'heart'. To disclose this openly was to clean one's heart of impurity. Any mention of breasts now is likely to be a reference to the 'soft protuberances' - we are more liable these days to 'get something off our chest'.

'Make a clean breast of it' is known since the 18th century and is cited by Cameron in The Scots Magazine, 1752:

"He pressed him... to make a clean breast, and tell him all."

The phrase parallels the later, 19th century American 'come clean'.

See also, 'keep your hands clean' / 'keep your nose clean'