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Context: an old (70+ years old) Londoner is being interviewed about his past as a lighterman on the River Thames and says the following:

Three big wharves there, they've flattened, all gone. One of them we called the stinker wharf. They made bones. It used to pen and ink when you went by there.

Webster's Third defines “to make bones” as “to show hesitation, uncertainty, or scruple,” but it doesn't seem to fit here. Partridge Slang says that “bone” could mean a marijuana/tobacco cigarette in the US; but it would be odd if an old Londoner used American slang terms.

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This actually sounds more like Cockney than anything else. To "pen and ink" is probably slang for "stink." Cockney also uses phrases like "Get me a Britney" for "Get me a Beer" (Speer == Beer). Good Luck on figuring out what it means though. –  Stephen Furlani Jan 10 '11 at 19:56
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To my New York, second generation Italian-American ear, "make bones" evoked a completely different idea. Wikipedia quoting Peter Mass' excellent Underboss: 'Committing one's first contracted killing is referred to as "making your bones."' And the docks are a favorite place of the mob, So I immediately thought "somebody got whacked on the docks". –  John Satta Jan 11 '11 at 10:59

5 Answers 5

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I sent an email to The Company of Watermen and Lightermen in London and asked them if they knew what a "stinker wharf" was and what it might mean to say that "they made bones" there. Susan Fenwick replied

a stinker wharf would have been a tannery (there were many along the Thames) or perhaps a knackery (where they boiled down animal carcasses to make glue, bone meal, etc) and so called because it smelled bad.

So it seems most likely that he meant something like bone meal when he said "they made bones."

As a side note, "make bones" (in the US anyway) can mean making money, and "bones" can refer to dice or dominoes as well. I don't think either one of those fits here.

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+1 for the research. If this is the right interpretation (and it's a big if), the stinker wharf would be a knackery rather than a tannery. There are no bones involved in tanning. –  user1579 Jun 10 '11 at 15:23

"Dog and bones" is Cockney slang for telephone. Conceivably, this phrase had been shortened: "they made bones" could be translated as they called (on the phone).

I would translate it as:

Three big wharves have been demolished. One of them we called the stinker wharf. They called and complained because it stunk so much when you went by there.

EDIT

Actually, after a little more thinking, make no bones about is a synonym for to have no objection to. So while my translation is correct, I'm thinking "making bones" about the wharf is just a reversal of the phrase. They objected to the wharf.

More research.

"Elizabeth was thus making huge bones of sending some £7000 over for the general purposes of the government in Ireland." -- Richard Simpson's The School of Shakspere, 1878

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Interesting: so “to make bones” could be a contemporary reversal of “to make no bones”, or it could be an older usage which has now mostly disappeared? –  PLL Jan 11 '11 at 6:44
    
+1 for "make bones" = "complain" –  John Satta Jan 11 '11 at 10:55
    
I think this answer is completely wrong in assuming that OP's Cockney was using any variant of the idiomatic "Make [no] bones about sth". He's obviously talking about the primary activity of the wharf, nothing to do with possible objections or directness of expression implicit in the idiom. –  FumbleFingers Sep 5 '11 at 16:46

I suspect the common meaning of make [no] bones [about it] is irrelevant here, and that he simply meant they boiled bones (to make glue, for example). Having driven past many old glue factories, I can confirm they do indeed pen and ink (stink).

LATER I'm still sure make [no] bones [about it] is irrelevant to OP's quoted usage. As is the well-known rag and bone (phone). But it might be worth pointing out that "bone" is also Cockney rhyming slang for throne (toilet).

I admit it's not obvious to me why a toilet manufacturing plant should "stink". Unless they have exceptionally realistic on-site product testing methods, flushing straight into the Thames.

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Boiling bones doesn't make them, it unmakes them. I think it more likely that this had something to do with fish, but most likely is about complaining. –  Jim Balter Mar 20 '11 at 22:06

It would appear that on a gloss of those meanings, "They made bones. It used to pen and ink when you went by there" would come across to the ear as "They would hesitate or complain because it stunk to go by there."

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Perhaps the stinker wharf was a cannery? It would have appeared that they "made (fish) bones" as a by-product...

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