The Grammarphobia Blog

More “bone” mots

Q: Regarding your blog entry on “make no bones about it,” is there aconnection with “have a bone to pick”? In French, we say “il y a un os” (there is a bone) when an unexpected problem arises and things cannot go as planned.

A: To “have a bone to pick,” meaning to have something you want to argue about or settle, refers to the image of two dogs fighting over a bone and picking it clean. Another expression, “bone of contention,” also comes from the image of dogs scrapping over a bone.

Both of these expressions date back to the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Similarly, in olden times to cause trouble between two people was to “cast a bone between them,” meaning to give them something to fight over.

To “make bones about it,” as the blog item notes, is another usage from the same era but with a different image as its likely source: bones in soup made it harder to eat, so to “make bones about something” meant to make difficulties, according to the OED.

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