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I have a friend who just lost her school notes and she is worried that she would get scolded for it. The notes are extremely important since our class teacher would check our notes every other week to make sure we actually do her homework. I said to her "I think it's better to come clean now instead of waiting until the teacher finds out. At least there's a good chance that she would let you off the hook if you tell her you lost your notes."

I wonder if I'm using "to come clean" correctly here.  As far as I know the phrase means to tell someone something that you've been keeping secret. However, something just doesn't feel right when I'm using it here.

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  • come clean = be completely honest; keep nothing hidden. I think your example is a perfectly good use of the expression, and I don't think there was ever a time when this idiom implied or ruled out the distinction between "lying by omission" (causing the teacher to mistakenly believe that your friend hadn't lost her notes) "explicitly telling falsehoods" (if she claims she left the notes at home, knowing full well that they're not there either). Jan 22, 2021 at 14:25

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Following comments below, this answer is amended to take account of the origin of the phrase.

Given the above link, it would actually seem to be the case that the prior distinction made did not exist and the use you posit is fine.

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  • Now i see..... Seems like my guts right about it. I'm surprised that the phrase also implies something else other than hiding secrets. How is it that even native speakers wont be able to discern the nuance though? Jan 22, 2021 at 14:12
  • In a sense, this situation also involves hiding a secret but the difference is the ordinary (or perhaps original) sense of the term was in actively hiding a secret. So, if someone asked you about X and you told them nothing or a lie, for example.
    – embefær
    Jan 22, 2021 at 14:15
  • I disagree. Just because you "come clean" doesn't imply you explicitly lied before. It might just mean you're being honest rather than secretive (in contexts where being secretive is likely to lead to people making incorrect assumptions). And I don't think it's meaningful to claim that this distinction was previously relevant to the usage, but has somehow shifted over the years. Jan 22, 2021 at 14:32
  • I think you may be correct. The original idiom originates from the phrase 'to make a clean breast of it' and in the example provided, it certainly does not seem to necessitate wrongdoing.
    – embefær
    Jan 22, 2021 at 14:49

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