English Vocabulary: Secrets

A secret is like a dove: when it leaves my hand, it takes wing*.

Arabian proverb

*if a bird, insect, or some other winged creature takes wing, it flies away

It would be incorrect to name this article “How to Talk about Secrets” because secrets are not to be talked about. Still, there is some useful vocabulary to learn, and it’s no secret. So, read on, improve your vocabulary, and try to have as few secrets as possible…

SECRET COLLOCATIONS

Secrets come in all shapes and sizes: big/great and little, closely guarded/well-kept and open; they can be innermost/intimate and dark/shameful/guilty/terrible, as well as family, commercial, trade, military, state, etc. A secret is open when someone reveals or tells it. But they manage to keep/guard a secret if nobody finds it out/uncovers it. Otherwise, a secret is out. If something is done in secret, it’s done in private: The film stars were married in secret to avoid publicity. If you make a secret of something, you try to hide it: I’ve never made a secret of my plan to eventually sell the company (I’ve made no secret of the fact that I would like to sell the company). 

Secret is not always a noun. It can be an adjective too: 1) This is a top/highly/very secret meeting. 2) This is absolutely/entirely secret. 3) They managed to keep the party more or less secret from Mary. (more or less means almost, nearly).

TELL + SECRET

When teaching students how to use say and tell, teachers often repeat: say something but tell somebody (e.g tell me about it; say it to me). That’s right – if you tell someone something, you give them information. But if you tell something like a secret, a joke or a story, you communicate it to other people using speech: 1) I’m the best person to tell a secret to. 2) I want to tell a joke. 3) This tells a tale all its own. 4) I’ve got a story to tell.

KEEP SECRET or KEEP A SECRET?

As mentioned before, secret can be a noun (e.g. I have a secret) and an adjective (e.g. This is a secret organization). In the phrase to keep (sth.) secret, secret is an adjective. The construction is keep + adjective: 1) How can I keep the water cold? – Put it into the fridge. 2) Keep yourself warm. – OK. I’ll use the blanket. To keep secret: 1) I like the plan. – Great! But keep it secret for now. 2) We’d like to keep our private life secret.

In keep a secret, secret is a noun. If you keep a secret, you don’t tell it: 1) I promise to keep the secret. 2) You can trust her. She can keep a secret.

SECRET IDIOMS

  1. My lips are sealed! = I won’t tell anyone!
  2. to keep one’s mouth shut – to be quiet; to not reveal confidential information: Please don’t tell anyone about it, I’m so embarrassed! – Don’t worry! I’ll keep my mouth shut/my lips are sealed.
  3. to keep something to oneself – to withhold some information: I’ve kept your little secret to myself for a whole year!
  4. Your secret is safe with me = I won’t tell your secret.
  5. I’ll carry the secret to my grave = The secret is safe with me.
  6. best-kept secret – something very good that not many people know about: This little cafe is a best-kept secret. More people should know about it.
  7. secret admirer – a person who likes another person but does not say so: Look! Flowers without a card. You have a secret admirer. 

THOSE WHO CAN’T KEEP A SECRET

Imagine you tell someone a secret, and they say their lips are sealed. But then you find out the secret is out. How disappointing! Here is the vocabulary suitable this particular situation and some similar ones:

  • to blab – to talk carelessly or too much, often telling others something you should keep secret: 1) Her mistake was to blab about their affair. 2) Someone blabbed to the press. (A much more formal word is divulge /daɪˈvʌldʒ/: Journalists do not divulge their sources.)
  • blabber/blabbermouth – a person who blabs: Why are you such a blabbermouth?
  • to have a big mouth/to be a big mouth – if someone is or has a big mouth, they often say things that are meant to be kept secret: He’s got a big heart but, unfortunately, his mouth is even bigger. So, don’t tell him. 
  • snitch – someone who secretly tells someone in authority that someone else has done something bad, often in order to cause trouble (the verb is to snitch): My sister is a snitch! She tells mom about what we do. She snitches on us.
  • telltale – a person, especially a child, who secretly tells someone in authority, especially a teacher, that someone else has done something bad, often in order to cause trouble: She’s a telltale. That’s why many children don’t like her.
  • fink – someone who tells a secret and damaging information about someone else, or an unpleasant person: Kelly’s such a fink – she told Mom I was smoking again.
  • stool pigeon – a person, often a criminal, who gives information in secret to the police so that they can catch other criminals: It never crossed his mind that Jake could be a stool pigeon till it was too late. A police informer can also be called a supergrass. It is a person, especially a criminal, who gives the police a lot of information about the activities of criminals, especially serious ones: Who’s the supergrass? – I can’t tell you.
  • whistle-blower – a person who tells someone in authority about something illegal that is happening, especially in a government department or a company: Edward Snowden is an American whistleblower.
  • to blow the whistle on sb. – to report or inform on sb.: People should be able to blow the whistle on corruption without losing their jobs.

Remember that the vocabulary from this section is informal.

We hope you enjoyed the article, and would like to finish with a song. “Got a secret, can you keep it? Swear this one you’ll save. Better lock it in your pocket, talking this one to the grave…” 😉

The Pierces – “Secret”

The lyrics are here.

  • deed (literary) – something that is done, especially something that is very good or very bad: Why, when we do our darkest deeds, do we tell?
  • living hell – an extremely unpleasant situation/place: They burn in our brains, become a living hell.
  • to swear on one’s life – to make a very serious, solemn pledge or oath: I have something to tell you but you have to promise never to tell anyone. – I promise. – Do you swear on your life? – I swear on my life.

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