I came across the phrase ‘toss a bone’ in the headline of the New York Times article (July 15) in its Business section that reads “As a Watchdog Starves, Wall Street Is Tossed a Bone.”

I checked dictionaries at hands to find no entry of this idiom, though I found ‘cast a bone between’ and ‘throw a bone,’ neither of which seems to be near ‘toss a bone.’

In this search, I found the phrase appearing in the lyrics of Confederate Railroad in Youtube that goes:

"So toss a little bone to the working man
Make it a law that we all get a raise
And prices go a little l..."

From the context of the headline of NYT article and the foregoing Confederate Railroad lyrics, I guess ‘toss a bone’ implies ‘to give a bate, or little reward (incentive) to somebody.’ Am I right?

Is ‘toss a bone to somebody’ a popular English (or American) phrase apart from the Confederate Railroad’s song?.

  • 2
    It's far from an unknown expression, but I think it's becoming a little 'dated' nowadays. Commented Jul 17, 2011 at 4:23
  • That's the way I have heard the expression...you give someone info and see where they carry it or if they bury it!
    – user117629
    Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 11:41
  • 1
    The idiom, of course, is based on throwing a bone to a dog, to keep it occupied and make it stop barking or whimpering.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 11:51
  • @shelly - I've never heard it used with that meaning.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 12:58

5 Answers 5


Tossing a bone to someone is usually done out of pity or by someone with significantly more power over the situation. The imagery is akin to feeding someone table scraps. It isn't usually done as a reward, per se, although begging for a bone or trying to convince the powers that be that you deserve it is common.

I do agree that it is usually a token amount or something small for the person doing the tossing. It can be considered a big deal for the person on the receiving end; the main gist is that there is a disparity in control.

Throw and toss are interchangeable in the idiom. It is very popular and usually invokes imagery of dogs — thus the watchdog pun in the NYT article. In this particular case, the author wishes to compare the situations of the Watchdog and Wall Street. Even though both are in dire times, one is being fed and the other starved. A bone isn't much but it is better than nothing.

  • @Robusto: You mention it is as some kind of reward or recognition. I don't think it implies a reward at all. But I can just remove that part from the answer, I guess.
    – MrHen
    Commented Jul 17, 2011 at 14:24
  • 1
    @Robusto: I don't think tossing someone a bone has anything to do with rewards. But whatever. I removed the note talking about your answer.
    – MrHen
    Commented Jul 17, 2011 at 14:41
  • Cool. Maybe we can delete this comment chain as well, so as not to confuse future generations.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 17, 2011 at 14:43

Yes, it is. It means to give someone a little bit of something, as in a reward or some kind of recognition. Usually that amounts to no more than a token award.

You will hear people in the U.S. say

"Hey, throw me a bone here!"

This is said when someone is feeling slighted or has gone unrecognized for some achievement.

The derivation is from throwing a bone to a dog, as in "even a dog would get a bone" from someone.


sometimes it means telling something to somebody to make him or her feel better. "I'll toss you a bone, makes you feel any better."


A dog replicates a person waiting for something. The bone replicates good information that the Person can use. A dogs behaviour after receiving a bone is the behaviour of the person after receiving the information, the dog not unlike the person; may run around with it showing it off or dig a hole to bury it; so he doesn't have to share it with another.


@"Robusto "You mention it is as some kind of reward or recognition. I don't think it implies a reward at all."

Don't use it the way others have described. Use it to "throw someone false information" See if they can keep the bone to themselves OR more commonly It comes back as gossip=can't trust them. aka False Propaganda.

  • 2
    I have never heard anyone use the expression in this manner. Do you have a source for your claim? Commented Aug 17, 2014 at 22:31

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.