Bone up on


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Bone up on'?

To study hard, usually in preparation for a test.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Bone up on'?

There are two chief theories as to the origin of this phrase. One is that it derives from the practice of using bones to polish leather. So, to ‘bone up’ on a subject was to polish or refine one’s knowledge. The second theory relates to the Victorian bookseller Henry George Bohn (1796-1884). He produced a large catalogue of books, including many study texts.

Early citations of the phrase in print, of which there are very few, don’t support either idea. Bone was used as a verb meaning ‘to study’ from the early 19th century onward. The first known citation that explicitly use ‘bone up’ is in Tenting on Plains by Elizabeth Custer (wife of General George Custer), 1887:

“I have known the General to ‘bone-up’, as his West Point phrase expressed it, on the smallest details of some question at issue.”

The Bohn story has the feel of something retro-fitted to the facts. If it really were true we might expect to find some 19th century reference that linked Bohn name with the phrase, or some example of ‘Bohn up’ in print. Nevertheless, the term must have come from somewhere, so the polishing with bone seems the most probable. Without further evidence the origin remains uncertain.

Trend of bone up on in printed material over time

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.

Gary Martin

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.