Bone to Pick – Meaning and Origin

In this life, we’re human. And as human beings, we sometimes do things wrong. And a lot of the time, when we get things wrong, people might want to ask us about what we did and why we have done it.

If anyone ever says to you “I have a bone to pick with you”. They will usually mean “You have done something that I don’t like and I want an explanation”.

For example, if you were supposed to be at a party, but you miss it to spend time with your wife, someone might say to you, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you”.

Origin of “Bone to pick”

When the phrase first came about, it was meant as a way of informing you that the person talking wanted to occupy your time. This wasn’t automatically in situations where they were annoyed or angry, but rather, they had a question they wanted to get to the bottom of.

This phrase comes from dogs. Have you ever given a bone to a dog?

If you do, you’ll find they can spend all day picking at it. Trying to get all of the meat off the bone, and getting into the bone marrow. When you have a “bone to pick” with someone, you want to pick at their mind in the same way a dog would pick at a bone.

As a term of annoyance

The first usage of this phrase being used to show a level of annoyance was in an 1812 edition of the Christian Observer. In the UK, the Observer is an incredibly popular newspaper, and it sells thousands of copies every day.

As well as the regular Observer, there are also plenty of smaller and more local editions. One such version is the “Christian Observer” which focuses on news that will be of interest to people of a Christian faith.

The phrase “bone to pick” used to refer to someone being annoyed was in the complaints sections where one reader had written in to talk about a complaint he had about fishing.

Pick

Etymology

There aren’t many words within the English language that don’t come from other languages. And the word “pick” is no exception.

“Pick” comes from the Middle English “Piken”, which comes from the Old English “Piccian” which comes from the Proto-Germanic Pikkona.

The word “pick” has kept the same meaning in all the languages it’s been through.

What I’ve noticed about the word “pick” is that it’s a slightly onomatopoeic word. If you are to pick at something the sound it’s going to make is likely going to sound a little bit similar to the word “pick”. I’m not sure whether this is intentional or if it’s just a coincidence, but either way, it’s pretty cool to think about.

Other definitions

In the context of “Bone to Pick”, “pick” means to detach or remove something, but “pick” is a homophone, and there are several other definitions of the word.

You could use “pick” as an alternative to choose. “I need to pick a shirt for tonight”.

It can also be used to say “bully”. “I hit her because she was picking on my sister”.

And two nouns are called “picks”. You could be talking about a “guitar pick” or a “digging pick” that’s often used in mines.

Bone

Etymology

“Bone” is an incredibly old word. It’s one of the words that predates language, and human beings have always had bones, long before we were able to talk to one another about them. In fact, bones have been around for longer than we have, even the fish who were around before the dinosaurs had bones.

“Bone” comes from the Old English “Ban”, which comes from the Proto-Germanic “Bainan”.

Other phrases

Bone of contention

Another phrase that talks about bones is “bone of contention”.

When talking about a “bone of contention”, we mean something that has a habit of causing arguments. For example, I might say “as much as I love my family, Brexit was always a bone of contention at the dinner table”.

Just like “bone to pick” this phrase comes from dogs. When two dogs find a bone, there’s a high chance there will be a contest to see who is most worthy of having the bone.

Working your fingers down to the bone

Another common idiom about bones is “Working your fingers down to the bone”. This is a highly exaggerated way of saying “working incredibly hard”.

Most of the time, we don’t work so hard that the skin on our fingers gets so thin it completely vanishes and you can see the bone. However, most of us have been through situations where we work so hard that it feels as though the skin on our fingers have been worked away.

This phrase is most prevalent in blues music, which has a habit of being filled with metaphors and other common language techniques.

Alternatives to “Bone to pick”

Of course “Bone to pick” isn’t the only phrase that we can use to say we’re annoyed about something and we want to get to the bottom of it. Here are the top three of my personal favourites.

“Axe to grind” means to have a strong opinion about something, and we need to voice our opinion and get it off our chest.

“Settle the score” relates to sports where the two players can’t agree on who that point should belong to. So to get to the bottom of it, they will “settle the score”.

And finally “chip of your shoulder” is something that’s always there and always bugging you.

Conclusion

If you have a “bone to pick” with someone, you’re annoyed at them, and you want to find out why they have done the thing that gets you into a bad mood.

When the phrase first entered our lexicon, it just meant we wanted to get to the bottom of something. It wasn’t until 1812 that it came to be associated with annoyance, thanks to the “Christian Observer”.

Both “bone” and “pick” have come to the English language through other languages.

There are plenty of other phrases that use “bones” as metaphors, and also plenty of other phrases that mean the same thing as “bone to pick”.

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