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.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added pieces
Vape; Bridegroom; Lilly-low; The Language Myth by Vyvyan Evans; Boot and trunk; Zoilism; Fish-faced; Poach; Immensikoff; Habiliments; The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker; Agister; The Word at War; Not so green as you’re cabbage-looking; Peely-wally; Draw a line in the sand; Porphyrogeniture.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!