Q: What is the origin of the expression “to make no bones about it,” and what are these “bones” supposed to be?
A: The expression evolved from a 15th-century saying, “to find no bones” (that is, difficulties) in one’s figurative soup. So in the 1400s, “to find no bones” in a situation meant to see no obstacles or problems.
Today, to “make no bones” about something means to speak clearly and unhesitatingly about it, no matter how awkward or distasteful the subject is.
Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard, or general, dictionary, has this example: “Definitely not for the squeamish, the article makes no bones about where the responsibility for the massacre lay.”
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says “to make bones” means “to make objections or scruples about, find difficulty in, have hesitation in or about” something.
However, the OED says, the expression is generally used with a negative (“no,” “never,” “without,” and so on).
As the OED explains, “to make bones,” which first appeared in the mid-16th century, was originally “to find bones.”
The earlier, 15th-century expression referred figuratively “to the occurrence of bones in soup, etc., as an obstacle to its being easily swallowed.”
The earliest citation in the OED is from a letter written in 1459 to a Norfolk squire, John Paston I, by his chaplain, Friar John Brackley:
“And fond that tyme no bonys in the matere” (“And found that time no bones in the matter”).
The next citation uses the metaphor in the sense of having no complaints about a cup of ale:
“Supped it up at once; / She founde therein no bones.” (From John Skelton’s humorous poem The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng, which some scholars date at about 1516.)
No long afterward, in the mid-1500s, the more familiar formula “make no bones” first appeared in English writing.
In the OED’s earliest example, from a 1548 English translation of Erasmus’s Paraphrases (retellings of the Gospels), the expression conveys Abraham’s willingness to kill his son without hesitation:
“He made no manier bones ne stickyng, but went in hande to offer up his only son Isaac.” (“He made no sorts of bones at stabbing, but proceeded to offer up his only son Isaac.”)
While today the expression is followed by “about,” this wasn’t the case early on. For the first few centuries, people “made no bones at” (or of or in or to) before finally arriving in the late 19th century at “make no bones about.”
Here’s a selection of the OED’s other examples (note the various prepositions):
“As for mans hand, they make no bones at it.” (From a 1571 translation of John Calvin’s The Psalmes of Dauid and Others.)
“What matter soever is intreated of, they never make bones in it.” (From John Marbeck’s A Booke of Notes and Common Places, 1581.)
“Who make no bones of the Lords promises, but devoure them all.” (From Daniel Rogers’s Naaman the Syrian: His Disease and Cure, 1642.)
“The Pope makes no bones to break … the Decrees.” (From a 1670 translation of Gregorio Leti’s history Il Cardinalismo di Santa Chiesa.)
“Do you think that the Government or the Opposition would make any bones about accepting the seat if he offered it to them?” (From William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Pendennis, 1850.)
The first known example with the specific wording “make no bones about” is from a late Victorian novel, and here the phrase conveys the sense of speaking forthrightly:
“I didn’t quite like to draw out my money so long as Pilkington held on; but I shall make no bones about it with this fellow.” (From William Edward Norris’s Adrian Vidal, 1885.)
That is the sense the phrase usually has today, as in this mid-20th-century example from the OED:
“On the other hand, Dr. Libby makes no bones about the catastrophe of a nuclear war.” (From a 1955 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.)
Several other catch phrases involving bones are a familiar part of English, like “a bone to pick” and “bone of contention.” Both of these, as we’ve written before on the blog, date from the 16th century and are derived from the notion of dogs gnawing on bones.
Then there’s the 19th-century phrase, still sometimes heard today, “to make old bones,” meaning to live to a ripe old age.
The OED’s earliest citation for “make old bones” is from 1872, but we found an earlier one. It’s from the Jan. 3, 1863, issue of the journal Once a Week, in a serial installment of Mrs. Henry Wood’s novel Verner’s Pride:
“Barring getting shot, or run over by a railway train, you’ll make old bones, you will.”
The noun “bone” is Germanic in origin and, as you might suspect, it’s extremely old. The earliest known example is from the Erfurt Glossary, believed to have been written during the last quarter of the seventh century.
Here the manuscript translates the Latin word for “ivory” into Old English: “Ebor, elpendes ban [elephant’s bone].”