Come clean


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Come clean'?

To make a full disclosure; to confess.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Come clean'?

‘Come clean’ originated in the USA in either the late 19th or early 20th century. The earliest example that I have found of it in print is from the Moberly Evening Democrat, August 1904:

“Now, then Chillicothe papers – Constitution, Democrat, Tribune – come clean. Tell the truth.”

The unnamed journalist who wrote that must have liked the phrase, as it appears several times in the same paper from around that time and before I can find it elsewhere. It’s possible that the phrase was coined in Moberly, but that’s just conjecture.

‘Come’ is clearly just a shortening of ‘become’; ‘clean’ means ‘not sullied by untruth’, as in the earlier phrases ‘make a clean breast of it‘ and ‘keep one’s hands clean‘.

Trend of come clean in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.