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Make no bones about it

Q From Jean Cantlay, Australia: What is the origin of the expression make no bones about it?

A This is so ancient, dating practically from time immemorial, that it has long since achieved the status of an idiom. When you think about it, the saying is certainly odd. Why should the notion of having no hesitation or scruples in speaking about or dealing with some matter, no matter how awkward or unpleasant, have any connections with bones?

It has been argued that the phrase had its origin in dice games, since dice have been called bones since the fourteenth century at the latest, for the good reason that they were originally carved from bone. The image presumably is that the player doesn’t stop to call on Dame Fortune or talk to the dice after the manner of craps players (“Baby needs new shoes!”) but just rolls them.

A more probable, but somewhat surprising, origin is from the meal table. The oldest version of the expression is to find bones in something, meaning to find a difficulty or objection in some course of action. The first example is from one of the Paston letters of 1459. It seems to have been linked especially with soup: to have a bone in that certainly presented difficulties in eating it. To find no bones in something meant that you had no problems or difficulties. The idiom seems to have grown out of that.

There are other expressions connected with bones, such as having a bone to pick with somebody (to have a dispute with that person) and bone of contention (something that causes discord or dissention). Both seem to be connected with the way that a meaty bone thrown to a group of dogs will cause intense rivalry and dispute.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 Mar. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 1 March 2003.