Between you, me and the gatepost: idioms connected with secrets

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by Liz Walter

Everyone has secrets, and if someone confides their secret to you, that is a real sign of trust. Conversely, giving away someone’s secret is an act that can range from being a minor annoyance to a friendship-breaking betrayal. No wonder, then, that there are so many colourful and widely-used idioms and phrases that refer to this topic.

I’ll start with things we say when we are asking someone to keep a secret. You might begin what you have to say with (Just) between you and me or, more colourfully, Between you, me and the gatepost, or end your secret with … but keep that under your hat. You could also start or end with Please don’t breathe a word of this to anyone or Make sure you keep this to yourself:

Between you, me and the gatepost, their marriage hadn’t been working for years.

I’m thinking of leaving. But keep that under your hat.

To reply idiomatically to these requests, you could say My lips are sealed or Mum’s the word! Both of these phrases are slightly humorous, so if someone is telling you about something really serious, it’s probably best to stick to a non-idiomatic reply such as ‘Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone, I promise.’

If someone gives away a secret, usually without intending to, we say they let the cat out of the bag, while if someone is persuaded to tell you something that was intended to be a secret, we say they spill the beans. The phrase let slip or let it slip also means to tell a secret unintentionally. It is often followed by a that clause:

Can we get Jodie to spill the beans on what happened that day?

He let (it) slip that he was looking for another job.

We sometimes use the rather charming phrase A little bird told me to avoid revealing the source of some unexpected knowledge:

‘How did you know I’d got engaged?’ ‘A little bird told me.’

If you keep something under wraps, you don’t tell anyone about it:

He was working on a book but he kept it under wraps until it was published.

Someone who is tight-lipped refuses to talk about secrets, while someone who is loose-lipped talks about things they shouldn’t, including other people’s secrets:

She remained tight-lipped about her experiences.

A loose-lipped friend spoke to a journalist:

Finally, if someone has an embarrassing, often shaming, secret from their past, we say they have a skeleton in their cupboard (UK)/closet (UK & US):

If he has any skeletons in his closet, the media will find them.

I hope you find these phrases useful. Do you have similar ones in your language?

11 thoughts on “Between you, me and the gatepost: idioms connected with secrets

  1. aleov

    Yes, we do; “un pajarito me dijo”, a little bird told me, but easily refused by saying “you are crazy if you think birds talk to you” . Mis labios están sellados “my lips are sealed”. Don´t breath a word of this to anyone, “ni una palabra de esto a madie”
    No le damos casi valor a “I promise”, as we see, you do in UK, USA, and other English speaking countries we trade that word for “te lo juro”, that neither we respect.

    1. Vilson Machado

      In Portuguese our version of “my lips are sealed” is “minha boca é um túmulo”( my mouth is a grave).
      And ” let the cat out of the bag” is ” dar com a língua nos dentes” ( to hit the teeth with the tongue).
      Thank you for this useful post.

  2. Maryem Salama

    We have a common idiom, as we usually say in this context (your secret in a well.) But a lot of theses idioms are used in our daily conversations thanks to the literal translation.

  3. Denis

    In Russian, we’ve got one very similar to ‘a little bird told me’, but we say it in a bit of a different way:
    ‘How did you know that?’ ‘A little bird brought it on its tail.’

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