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From The Shining, by Stephen King:

Jack turned back, all zero at the bone.

What is the meaning of this expression?

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Note that it is not an idiom and there is no connection to idioms. –  Joe Blow Aug 18 at 6:57
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For a definition of idioms (== a phrase with a well-established, known meaning, even though literally it is meaningless or bizarre) simply click to any dictionary. –  Joe Blow Aug 19 at 9:51

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Zero at the bone seems to be an idiomatic expression off Emily Dickinson's poem:

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

The implication seemingly being a reference Zero (O° F – cold!) to the bone. Literally, a chilling fear!

It's informal and not a set idiom as such.

See also:

"Zero" suggests cold and also nothingness. That the feeling penetrates to "the bone" suggests how deeply felt, how intense the emotion is. When you put all these details together, does the response sound like fear? (Melani, Brooklyn College)

and

… there will be a fearful constriction of chest and lungs, and bone marrow temperature will plummet. (Wood, humanities360)

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You know, (1) it's not in any way an idiom. King was possibly making an obscure reference to the poem, and homage, or, it is a sheer coincidence. In any event it's not in the slightest an idiom in English, and has nothing to do with idioms. (2) It's unclear if Dickinson meant temperature (for me it would be unusual to use the 'technical' sounding 'zero' in her year of writing); perhaps it more just suggests nothingness, evil blankness. –  Joe Blow Aug 18 at 7:01
    
Kris - you're absolutely right. But then, literally the first 10 words of your answer, are, confusing/wrong! Heh! –  Joe Blow Aug 19 at 9:18
    
PS I'm not sure what you mean about book titles (there's one action-thriller (??) series, entitled "Zero at the bone") –  Joe Blow Aug 19 at 9:21
    
Idiomatic means that the meaning is known (to repeat, is in fact known) from common usage, and is not deducible from the literal words. "zero to the bone" is perfectly literal. whereas something like "brass monkeys!" is an idiom. it is unclear / ambiguous whether the "zero" means temperature or spirit - but so what?; ambiguities are not idiom and have nothing to do with idiom. Note that, critically -- we do not know what the phrase means! Heh!!! It's not an idiom like "brass monkeys" where, in fact, we know what it means (due to common usage). –  Joe Blow Aug 19 at 9:32
    
If it is idiomatic, state the meaning. It's just that simple. Idiomatic means, the meaning (which cannot be deduced literally) is established and well-known by custom, even though the literal meaning is bizarre/dadaist (like "brass monkeys"). This is literally the opposite of an idiom: an obscure phrase where, we all agree, we do not know quite what it means. (Your comment about "extended discussions" is odd, are you new to these sites? It does not appear so from your points! This is a SHORT discussion :) ) –  Joe Blow Aug 19 at 9:50

It's from Snake by Emily Dickinson,

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

It's an allusion to a basic fear (originally of serpents), it is a feeling in your bones (or perhaps soul).

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I read it as another way of describing the phenomenon in which (to cite a genuine idiom) one's bones turn to jelly. (Nothing to do with physical temperature, in other words; rather, the reference is to the fear-inspired metaphorical dissolution of that substance which normally keeps us standing upright and capable of moving our limbs, as you may have been implying. Checking the relevant passage of The Shining at Google Books seems to support this interpretation: Jack is made fearful by a remark his son has just uttered.) –  Erik Kowal Aug 18 at 8:23
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@Erik I think both interpretations are valid. It's poetry. –  Elliott Frisch Aug 18 at 11:08

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