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Re: It has bones in it

Posted by Graham Cambray on February 05, 2009 at 00:32

In Reply to: It has bones in it posted by Ellen Laflamme on February 04, 2009 at 13:46:

: Where did the saying "it has bones in it" come from?

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I don't have the time to do this justice - and it may be that others feel the same, as nobodt else has answered yet. I'll make a start, and perhaps others can take this over the finishing line.

There are a lot of phrases with "bones" in - if you do a search on this site, and you get this: "Results 1 - 10 of about 187 from www.phrases.org.uk for bones". I've not had time to read all these.

Only one "bones" phrase has a formal entry on this site, namely "Make no bones about". I don't think it's the one we're after, exactly.

I'd start with "Pick the bones out of that!". This cropped up on the site a while back (www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/53/messages/988.html), and got one response - which gave one of the two meanings of the phrase (the second of those below).

The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, by Tom Dalzell (p493) has:
Pick the bones out of that! 1. Used as a challenge to unravel, or retort to, or refute and argument. 2. A catchphrase that accompanies expectoration.

I'm well used to the first meaning, but as well as the "challenge", I've also heard the phrase used in a different way. "OK, I guess we've no option but to try and pick the bones out of this" would mean "We're going to have to try and unravel this (and it's not going to be easy)". I've used this form of words when faced with a complex problem which appears (almost) impossible to sort out. I'm in the UK - I don't know if the phrase is used this way in the US.

Which brings us to the only instance of your phrase's use which I found with a quick "google" - two guys discussing some computer code they're trying to rewrite (http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/sondheim__internet_text/gg.txt). In the text is this: "The index has grown to 390 entries, something for everybody. It's spidery, out of control; it has bones in it."

My guess then (and it's only a guess) is that your phrase has effectively "branched off" from the earlier (more widely used) one - picking the bones out of something. The common thread seems to be having to painstakingly unravel something - or maybe just leave it alone 'cos it's going to be damn hard to unravel.

I haven't had time to look up the origins of the earlier phrase (and probably won't for a bit), but I assume it derives from having to pick the bones out of a fish before you finally get to the stage where you can actually eat it. Or maybe one of those dishes comprising ridiculously small birds, served whole, which the French have a nasty habit of serving up (probably just to irritate visiting Englishmen).

As far as I can go in the time I've got. Hopefully others will pick up the baton. (GC)