Phrases.org quotes Robert Forby in his glossary The Vocabulary Of East Anglia, 1830, commenting that the entry falls short of mentioning the actual wording 'bone-idle' :

Bone-lazy, bone-sore, bone-tired, adj. so lazy, sore, or tired, that the laziness, the soreness, or the fatigue, seem to have penetrated the very bones.

The OED tells me that the two earliest uses of 'lazy bones' are :

1593 G. Harvey Pierces Supererogation 185 Was..legierdemane a sloweworme, or Viuacitie a lasie-bones.

1600 N. Breton Pasquils Mad-cap (Grosart) 12/2 Go tell the Labourers, that the lazie bones That will not worke, must seeke the beggar's gaines.

However the first uses of 'bone idle' are attributed by the OED to Thomas Carlyle and Rudyard Kipling :

1836 T. Carlyle New Lett. (1904) I. 8 For the last three weeks I have been going what you call bone-idle.

1891 R. Kipling Light that Failed vi. 98 Bone-idle, is he? Careless, and touched in the temper?

I am intrigued as to how bones can be either 'lazy' or 'idle'. It is muscles that are the active constituents of limbs. Bones are moved by muscles.

Is the origin due to the concept of just the depth of idleness, that there is nothing deeper in a limb than a bone ?

Or is there some other original meaning to the idiom ?

Note : There is a mention of 'bone idle' in an answer to a closed question but the answer gives no information about the origin of the expression.

  • 2
    The idiom is likely an evolution of a metaphor, 'down to the bones', used as an intensifier to mean 'down to the very heart'. 'Bones' often has this connotation of centrality and heart, as seen in phrases such as 'bare-bones', 'close to the bone' and 'feel in his bones'. – Deonyi Jul 14 at 12:00
  • Look here: en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/bone_idle – Kris Jul 14 at 12:08
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    I don't understand the title. It sounds like you are looking for synonyms of or even other pairs including 'bones' and being tired. But your text does not sound not like that. Can you fix the title? – Mitch Jul 14 at 12:11
  • @HotLicks The Ngram shows that BrE and AmE are equivalent and the usage rises from around 1880. – Nigel J Jul 14 at 12:14
  • @Mitch Fixed as requested. – Nigel J Jul 14 at 12:14
up vote 5 down vote accepted

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origin says that the idea suggested by the expression bone idle is that of being idle all through to the bone.

Bone idle: (old-fashioned, British English, informal)

very lazy

  • Word Origin: early 19th cent.: expressing idle through to the bone.

In A Glossary of Words Pertaining to the Dialect of Mid-Yorshire and Holderness, Issues 1-2 by C. Clough Robinson, they also suggest a possible origin from born idle:

Bone-idle, E. and N., adj. thoroughly lazy. There appears to be some doubt as to the origin of this word bone, whether it means idle even to the bones, or born idle; in the E. it would appear to refer to the former, as they have a saying “He is idle tiv his varray backbeean”, while in the Noth it is frequently used in the latter sense, i.e. constitutionally idle from birth, in the same way as it is said that Cap. Cook was a born sailor or Burns was a born poet.

An early citation of bone-idle is from “Fair Rosamond, or, The days of King Henry II: an historical romance” by Thomas Miller, 1839:

Marry i thou mayest work; — all these bone-idle fellows find thee out. But I should not matter it so much, an' they needed it ; but when I think of their tithes, and their orchards, and their cattle, and their fish-ponds, and the money they have paid for masses, ....

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