The Etymology of Secrets


For me, one of the most exciting things about working on Dirty Laundry with The Collaboratory is the opportunity to learn a new set of tools. My work as a director and playwright has been heavily text-focused, and I am eager to study the language of movement with my collaborators. At the same time, The Collaboratory’s laser-focused physicality has got them wondering about more deeply integrating text into their work. Together, we’ll bring our unique skills and meet in the middle to find a way to make language and physicality equal partners in Dirty Laundry.

One of my favorite ways to get into a project is to look at a theme as if I’m learning the word for the first time. This helps me to acknowledge my assumptions, trace back the ideas behind the word, and probably learn something new that I might have overlooked. Ultimately, it’s about starting from square one and making the idea fresh.

For example, what is “secret?” The word has been around in English since the mid to late 14th century – it’s secrette in Middle English, from the old French secret, which they borrowed from the Latin secretus, meaning “hidden.” The Latin can be broken down further by noting that secretus is the past participle of the verb sēcernere, “to separate” or “to set aside.” The Latin and French word displaced “native” Middle English words like diegol, doerne, roune, and hidel, which meant things like “dark” “hidden” and “secret counsel.”  So the idea of keeping secrets is an ancient one that has been around in many forms for millenia (as opposed to newer words like “cryonaut” which was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011, after being coined by science fiction in 1968).  I’ll skip over the drama of the evolution of languages – that stuff is pretty fun for my linguistic nerd brain to play with, but right now we’re more interested in the drama of secrets and what the heck Middle English has to do with Dirty Laundry, right?

Right. So the basis of the idea of a secret has to do with setting something apart in order to hide it. Beginning with my assumptions instead of the word itself, I might have said something like “a secret is something you don’t want other people to know” – which is only one facet of secrets.

Now that I have a handle on where the word comes from, I want to look at all the different ways we use it. A quick trip to tells me secret can be an adjective or a noun – and it once was a verb, as in the idiom “secret something away,” though that usage is now “obsolete,” according to OED.


  1. done, made, or conducted without the knowledge of others: secret negotiations.
  2. kept from the knowledge of any but the initiated or privileged: a secret password.
  3. faithful or cautious in keeping confidential matters confidential; close-mouthed; reticent.
  4. 4.     designed or working to escape notice, knowledge, or observation: a secret drawer; the secret police.
  5. secluded, sheltered, or withdrawn: a secret hiding place.
  6. beyond ordinary human understanding; esoteric.
  7. (of information, a document, etc.)
    1. bearing the classification secret.
    2. limited to persons authorized to use information documents, etc., so classified.


  1. something that is or is kept secret, hidden, or concealed.
  2. a mystery: the secrets of nature.
  3. a reason or explanation not immediately or generally apparent.
  4. 11.  a method, formula, plan, etc., known only to the initiated or the few: the secret of happiness;  a trade secret.
  5. a classification assigned to information, a document, etc., considered less vital to security than top-secret  but more vital than confidential, and limiting its use to persons who have been cleared, as by various government agencies, as trustworthy to handle such material.

This variety of definitions has got me thinking about all the different reasons why we keep secrets – and here’s where we make the leap from just having fun with linguistics to discovering something with some dramatic potential.  In #2, a secret password keeps an elite group elite. It’s about power and separating the initiated from the unworthy. In #4, the secret police do their work in the darkness to keep politics from interfering with what has to be done – or, on the other hand, to keep public opinion from holding them accountable to social mores and human rights. It’s about efficiency, directness, and autonomy. #5 conjures images of an eves-dropper behind curtains or a skeleton in the closet. In #9, there are some things that are secret because nobody knows – all of humanity is still looking for the answers to some mysteries. #11 makes me think of corporate espionage, ferreting out secrets to get the upper hand against an economic competitor. And in #12, those in the know classify dangerous information to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. That’s a lot of different kinds of secrets!

Not to mention a few I’ve brainstormed on my own: keeping a secret because we’re ashamed of something we’ve done; because we are worried that others will judge us for something we say or believe; because we don’t want to upset someone with bad news; because we don’t want share good news in case someone spoils it with an unasked-for opinion; because we know knowledge is power and we don’t want to give anyone else leverage over us.

In Lorca’s Yerma, the laundresses are obsessed with the secrets of the main characters, and each of them knows different snatches of information that helps the audience piece together the big picture of what is happening. In our first week of rehearsal for Dirty Laundry, we’ll be dreaming about what secrets the laundresses are keeping, who knows what about whom, and which secrets will be revealed beneath the layers of clothing and muck.

For more about the project, including a really fun video of us doing laundry in odd places all around San Francisco, check out our IndieGoGo campaign.