The Grammarphobia Blog

Who’s a bonehead?

Q: I try not to use the term “bonehead” because I suspect that it might have racist overtones. I remember the old cartoon depictions of Africans with bones in their hair. Is my rationale justified?

A: The short answer is no.

The words “bonehead” and “boneheaded” are slang or informal terms that originated in the U.S. in the early 1900s. They refer to someone who’s a blockhead, or who’s thick-headed or stupid.

The first published reference, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in Smart Set magazine in 1903: “You talk like a bone-headed fool!”

There are no ethnic or racial overtones—the implication is that the person’s head has more bone than brain.

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