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The meaning and origin of the expression: Make no bones about

Make no bones about

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Make no bones about'?

To state a fact in a way that allows no doubt. To have no objection to.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Make no bones about'?

This is another of those ancient phrases that we accept with our mother's milk as an idiom but which seem quite strange when we later give it some thought. When we are trying to convey that we acknowledge or have no objection to something, why bring bones into it?

It has been suggested that the bones were dice, which were previously made from bone and are still called bones in gambling circles. That explanation doesn't stand up to scrutiny - ' no dice' is a US expression but 'to make no dice about it' has never been a phrase in the language. Also, in a 1542 translation of Erasmus's Paraphrase of Luke he discussed the command given to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and wrote that 'he made no bones about it but went to offer up his son.' Erasmus wasn't noted for his visits to the gaming tables and would hardly have used betting terminology to discuss a biblical text.

The actual source of this phrase is closer to home and hearth. In 15th century England, if someone wanted to express their dissatisfaction with something, they didn't 'make bones about it', they used the original form of the phrase and 'found bones in it'. This is a reference to the unwelcome discovery of bones in soup - bones = bad, no bones = good. If you found 'no bones' in your meal you were able to swallow it without any difficulty or objection.

The earliest citation of the phrase in print comes from the Paston Letters, which include a collection of texts from 1459 relating to a dispute between Paston and the family of the Norfolk soldier Sir John Fastolf (Fastolf was, incidentally, the source of the character Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare's Henry IV). In the Paston Letters, the context of which is that the litigants are finally accepting a verdict with no objection, Paston includes the line:

"And fond that tyme no bonys in the matere." [and found that time no bones in the matter]

'Making bones' is usually expressed in the negative. There are rare occurrences of people being described as 'making bones' about this or that, and an early example comes from Richard Simpson's The School of Shakspere, 1878:

"Elizabeth was thus making huge bones of sending some £7000 over for the general purposes of the government in Ireland."

Make no bones about it'Make no bones about it' is now rather archaic and heard less often than before. It did return briefly during the 1980s, as an example of the 'waiter, I'll have a crocodile sandwich, and make it snappy' form of joke. 'Waiter, I'll have tomato soup and make no bones about it' linked neatly back to the phrase's culinary origin.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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