A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (102)?…


Make no bones about

This phrase is used to make a vehement assertion about something, as in “make no bones about it, this is going to be interesting”. Alternatively, it can be used to indicate that someone does something without objection, as in “she made no bones about taking the dog for a walk”. The origin of this phrase is harder to unravel.

What we do know is that it has a long pedigree as a variant first appeared in print in 1548 in Nicholas Udall’s The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus vpon the Newe Testamente, where he described Abraham who “made no manier – a comparative of many – bones ne stykyng (hesitation), but went in hande to offer up his only son Isaac”. By the late 16th century making no bones made an appearnce – Marbeck’s Book of Notes of 1581 noted, “whatsoever matter is intreated of, they never make bones in it” and in 1597 in the chapter on incestuous persons in Thomas Beard’s The Theatre of God’s Judgements, “divers of the Roman Emperours were so villainous and wretched as to make no bones of this sin with their owne sisters, as Caligula, Antonius and Commodus”.

An earlier variant still was the phrase, to find no bones is something. This appeared in a letter written by Friar Brackley to John Paston in 1459 regarding a legal dispute, “Mayster R Popy, a cunnying and crafty man…and fond that tyme no bonys in the matere”. Clearly, the bones are being used in this context to denote obstacles or objections. The absence of bones (obstacles) enabled the crafty so and so to agree to what was being proposed.

So what are we to make of these bones? We have seen before that mediaeval and Tudor foodstuffs often left a lot to be desired in terms of quality. You were not always eating what you thought you were and sometimes foreign and cheaper bodies would be added to increase the supplier’s profit. An unwelcome surprise, although not as unwelcome as some I’m sure that could be experienced, was to find a bone in a pudding, pie or soup – at least you could be certain it came from a previously living creature. One theory is that the expression comes from the gastronomic delight of not discovering a foreign object in your tucker.

Adherents of this theory draw upon John Skelton’s The Tunnying of Elynour Rummyng of 1516 in which the eponymous protagonist brewed a strong ale and gave a cup to a drunken woman, Ales. “Ales found therein no thornes/ but supped it up at ones/ she found therein no bones”.

Making bones appeared in Thackeray’s Pendennis of 1850, “do you think that the government or opposition would make any bones about accepting the seat if he offered it to them?”, where bones are clearly objections. And, I think, this is our clue. Bone is not a foreign object found in your food, it is a figurative description for strife or disagreement. There are a number of proverbs where bone is used in this sense – tonge breketh bone (speech causes strife), it is said that although itself has none, a tongue breaks the hard bone to pieces and fair words never break bones , to name just three.

Perhaps some strength is added to the theory by considering the French equivalent, ne pas macher ses mots (don’t chew your words). I won’t make any bones of whichever version you accept.


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