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Come clean

Posted by Smokey Stover on July 07, 2008 at 06:56

In Reply to: Come clean posted by pamela on July 06, 2008 at 23:46:

: : : : Where does this come from? It is the title of a school book my 9 year old son is reading at the moment. One of the questions at the back is about how the title relates to telling the truth. I have told him that "come clean" means tell the truth, but can't tell him how the saying came about. Any ideas?

: : : to make a clean breast of it -- mid to late 18th century. To confess, to own up unreservedly. Come clean, 19th century, the same as "to get it off your chest." From Cassell's Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon Green (Wellington House, London, 1998). Page 763.

: : : My theory. Most people, when they have told a lie or done something wrong, will feel "heavy hearted." The emotional stress makes their chest hurt. Telling the truth -- or getting it off their chest -- relieves the pressure. Of course, sometimes telling the truth gets the person in trouble. That's the downside.

: : Looks like Ms. Ammer agrees with me.

: : make a clean breast of something -- To make a full confession. The word "breast" here is a synonym for "heart," long considered the seat of private emotion and, by extension, secrets. Shakespeare referred to cleansing one's bosom in Macbeth (5:3). The current cliche dates from the early eighteenth century. From "Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches," second edition, edited by Christine Ammer, Checkmark Books, New York, 2006. age 261.

: Or - as an alternative to the "heavy hearted" theory - could it also be the assocaiton of sin with dirt? So to "make a clean breast of it" is to cleanse your heart of that dirty lie. Pamela

All the above are convincing to me, but I thought it might be useful to add what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say, s.v. clean:

"to come clean (orig. U.S.): to confess, to make a clean breast of it (colloq.)."

Their quotations are pretty consistent.

"1919 C. H. DARLING Jargon Book 8 Come clean, to confess everything. 1925 WODEHOUSE Sam the Sudden xiii. 95 You'd best come clean, Soapy, and have a showdown. 1928 Daily Express 10 Oct. 6 Spill the beans. Come clean on the whole game. 1958 Listener 2 Oct. 514/1 Why not come clean and call 'graduated unemployment compensation' the national dividend? 1959 J. CARY Captive & Free 28, I was wasting my time, because you kept dodging. You never come clean."

The expression "make a clean breast of it" is rather older. Citations from the OED, s.v. breast:

"1752 CAMERON in Scots Mag. Oct. 508/1 He pressed make a clean breast, and tell him all. 1861 Sat. Rev. 23 Nov. 524 A clean breast must be made of everything. 1878 BLACK Green Past. xxiii. 184, I may as well make a clean breast of it."

And s.v. clean: "1838 MRS. CARLYLE Lett. I. 96, I would have..made a clean breast of all my thinkings and doings."