12

A recent tweet by the U.S. president includes this assurance:

I don't have a Racist bone in my body!

A blog post by David Graham, "The One Color the White House Sees Clearly" at The Atlantic Online offers this commentary on the history of the expression "doesn't have a racist bone in [one's] body":

As Christopher Petrella and Justin Gomer wrote in an April Washington Post essay on the history of “racist bones,” the phrase gained currency during the Ronald Reagan administration. When confronted about the racial impacts of its policies, the White House would simply insist it didn’t see color; the policies were intended to affect everyone the same.

Reagan's presidency began in January 1981, but the earliest match for not having "a racist bone in [one's] body" that an Elephind newspaper database search finds is from eight years before that, from Fr. Lawrence E. Lucas, "Giving Thanks," in the Pittsburgh Catholic (December 1, 1972):

It’s thanking the Lord for those good concerned whites who do not have a racist bone in their bodies, who live next door to a black family (the only one in the neighborhood) and who have a close colored friend: the same ones standing in line ready to do violence to prevent a housing project that might attract blacks or blocking the way of young black children in "their school."

The usage here is sarcastic and suggests that the author has heard the expression more than once from or on behalf of people whose claimed lack of racist bones he strongly doubts.

I suspect that not having "a racist bone in [one's] body" is an offshoot of the older expression about not having "a mean bone in [one's] body." The earliest Elephind match for that expression is from Donald Cameron, "Meanness," in the [Hay, New South Wales] Riverine Grazier (April 5, 1884):

The youth whom I will call Brown was known in the town as a firt-rate fellow, free and generous, sociable and ready to share whatever he had with his friends and acquaintances. People would say, "What a fine, free young chap Brown is; not a mean bone in his body. What a contrast to Smith."

Interestingly, "mean" in this instance has the sense "stingy" or "miserly," not "cruel" or "hurtful."

My questions are as follows:

  1. When, where, and in what context did "racist bone in [one's] body" first appear in print?

  2. When, where, and in what context did "mean bone in [one's] body" first appear in print?

  3. Are these two expressions related to an even earlier "[adjective] bone" that was used in a similar way, or is "mean bone" the first of its kind?


Update (July 17. 2019)

To this point, site participants have noted the following earliest documented occurrences of longstanding members of the "not a [modifier] bone in [one's] body" family:

"not a lazy bone in his body": 1826

"not a selfish bone": 1836

"not ... a mean bone": 1858

"not a jealous bone": 1882

"hasn't an artistic bone" 1923

"ain't a racist bone": 1967

Evidently, the "racist bone" is a latecomer to an old and fairly numerous family.

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  • A note about question 1: the earliest citation in the OED for racist as an adjective is from 1927, so the earliest usage of "racist bone" will most likely be from after that.
    – herisson
    Jul 17, 2019 at 1:25
  • "Doesn't have an [adjective] bone in their body" is a standard idiom. While it's interesting to know where the general expression came from, why is it interesting to know when some specific adjective was first used in this expression? Jul 17, 2019 at 15:02
  • 2
    I'm not sure how much this adds to your inquiry, but I found a reference to "not a lazy bone in his body" from 1826 (I double-checked the front-page dateline). newspapers.com/image/396903433 --- The Morning Post (London, England) 07 Aug 1826 4/1 Jul 17, 2019 at 23:59
  • 1
    @RaceYouAnytime: That's an excellent find—not least because it raises the possibility of British English origin of the entire "not a [modifier] bone in [one's] body" family. Thank you! In my summary of my question, I've added a link to a version of the same story from the British Newspaper Archive collection, because people without a subscription can at least see a thumbnail transcript of the wording used in the story.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 18, 2019 at 0:44
  • 1
    Note that these expressions are all Negative Polarity Items. They're examples of the Not + Minimal Direct Object NPI construction, like drink a drop, eat a bite, say a word, do a thing, lift a finger In this version, we're evaluating bones (or hairs) as minimal pieces of the body. Consequently any discussion of them that omits the negative is going to miss a lot. Jun 5, 2023 at 13:09

6 Answers 6

17

This post is aimed at answering questions 2 and 3.

So far, I haven't found any single adjective that seems to have been clearly the first to be used in the metaphorical expression "a(n) [adjective] bone".

When I say "goes back to __" in the following sections, it obviously means "goes back to at least __". There might be earlier examples that I haven't found.

None of the examples that I've found are from before the 19th century.

"Mean bone" goes back to 1858

There was not a mean hair on his head or a mean bone in his body.

(Lost chapters recovered from the early history of American Methodism, by Joseph Beaumont Wakeley, 1858. p. 239)

"Selfish bone" goes back to 1836

Here is the earliest quote that I've found with "selfish bone":

There was not a selfish bone in the body of one of them.

("The Old Maid's Legacy", by Richard Penn Smith, in Godey's Magazine, Volume 13, July 1836)

There are more examples of "a selfish bone" in books from the 19th century, but it doesn't seem to have been a very frequent expression.

"he hadn't a lazy bone in him" goes back to 1840, and "lazy bone" seems to have been popular between 1860 and 1950

Based on the Google Ngram Viewer, from around 1840-1950, "a lazy bone in" seems to have been more popular than either "a mean bone in" or "a selfish bone in":

a lazy bone in peaks between 1860-1950

The line for "a lazy bone in" shows an isolated blip upward from zero in 1801, but I think that's an error, so I didn't show it.

The earliest use of "a lazy bone in" that I have found so far in Google Books Search is from a book dated to 1840:

Captain T—— was a vigorous, energetic fellow: as sailors say, “he hadn't a lazy bone in him.” He was made of steel and whalebone.

Sven Yargs did further research on this quotation to find out that it comes from the book Two Years Before the Mast, by R. H. Dana, Jr, p. 86. The snippet view in Google Books misattributes this quote to Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petræa, and the Holy Land.

This expression is not identical to the term "lazy-bones" as a noun or epithet for a lazy person, but there might be a connection between the two expressions.

Other "adjective bone"s

Here are some other metaphorical expressions of the form "a(n) [adj] bone" that I found:

  • a jealous bone

Other "adjective hair"s

The first citation suggests a connection to, or possible development with, an alternative metaphor involving "an [adjective] hair" rather than "an [adjective] bone". Here are early sources I've found with the "hair" expression:

1852 "not a mean hair about him"

Poultry dealer in the Quincy market. Made every cent of his money in the right way, — by diligence, perseverance and economy, — not meanness, for there is not a mean hair about him.

(The Rich Men of Massachusetts, Second Edition, by Abner Forbes, 1852. p. 134)

1858 "not a lazy hair in their heads"

Men are charged with ignorance who have not got a particle; there is not a lazy hair in their heads.

(Emery's Journal of Agriculture, Vol. 2-No. 9., Chicago Ill., Thursday, Aug. 26, 1858, Whole No. 35. Emery & Co.)

1853 "not a lazy hair on his head"

He is incessantly active, both in body and mind; as some people say, he has not a lazy hair on his head.

(letter written by Lizzie Freeman March 1853, published in A Memorial of the Futterleigh Mission and her Martyred Missionaries, by J. Johnston Walsh, 1858, p. 180)

An 1819 source with "mean bone" in a possibly unrelated context

I don't know whether there is any relationship, but I found a source from 1819 that uses "a mean bone" as a literal translation of a Chinese term involving the morpheme 骨 (pinyin gu) 'bone':

Tsëen kŭh tow 賤|頭 [i.e. 賤骨頭] a mean bone, is used in abusive language to denote lowness of birth or conduct.

(A Dictionary of the Chinese Language, by Robert Morrison, p. 486, headword 骨, 6558 "Kŭh or kwŭh, a bone")

According to a comment by Janus Bahs Jacquet, 骨頭 (simplified 骨头) means ‘bone’ and 賤 (simplified 贱) means ‘mean, lowly, base, unworthy, impure’. The Wiktionary entry for 骨頭 says that it can figuratively refer to "character; personal quality". It's possible that the figurative usage of bone evolved separately in Chinese or English; as I said above, I don't know whether there's any connection—I just happened to stumble across this entry while searching Google Books for texts containing the string "a mean bone".

7
  • 2
    "Lazy bone" (or "lazy bones") was a common way to refer to someone who was lazy (or just "taking it easy") back ca 1960, but I haven't heard it much of late.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 16, 2019 at 23:54
  • 贱 (the simplified form of 賤) jiàn is indeed the correct character, meaning ‘mean, lowly, base, unworthy, impure’. 骨头/骨頭 gǔtóu (or gǔtou) means ‘bone’. Jul 17, 2019 at 0:41
  • Very interesting, sumelic—thanks! I just found an instance of "she hasn't a lazy bone in her body" in the [Lewisburg [Pennsylvania] Chronicle](chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85055197/1850-12-11/ed-1/…) of December 11, 1850, so your 1840 instance doesn't appear to be a one-off.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 17, 2019 at 0:54
  • 1
    Some of what you have found antedates what OED currently has for "not (to have) a —— bone in one's body" ($), where the earliest entry is 1850.
    – AakashM
    Jul 17, 2019 at 9:38
  • 2
    I also hear "artistic bone".
    – Zebrafish
    Jul 17, 2019 at 12:03
4

When doing a Google n-gram search for "racist bone" I came across a reference to a November 1967 issue of Jet magazine. It references a quote from Louise Day Hicks, a Boston politician and staunch opponent of school desegregation. Mrs Hicks and her supporters "insist there ain't a racist bone in her ample Irish body."

1
  • 1
    Thank you for the earlier instance. It seems entirely on point.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 17, 2019 at 0:55
3

I'm not sure how much this qualifies as a complete answer, but here are my current findings:

not a lazy bone in his body - 1826 (paywall link)

enter image description here

  • The Morning Post (London, England) 07 Aug 1826 4/1

not a racist bone in [sth] - 1966 (paywall link)

enter image description here

  • The Times (San Mateo, California) 07 Dec 1966 53/4

Not a jealous bone in my body - 1875 (paywall link)

enter image description here

  • The Shippensburg News (Shippensburg, Pennsylvania) 24 Apr 1875 3/2
1
  • Great research, as always. Thanks!
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 18, 2019 at 7:43
2

Are these two expressions (mean bone/racist bone) related to an even earlier "[adjective] bone" that was used in a similar way, or is "mean bone" the first of its kind?

This is a partial answer concerning lazy bones.

The OED shows a 1593 use of lazy bones:

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

A more definitive answer to 'racist bones' is here: Washington Post 7-16-2019

Though there are piecemeal and disjointed references to the “racist bone” apologia dating back as early as the mid-20th century, its usage was neither frequent nor systemic until Reagan’s first term. Based on a Google Ngram search, the documented frequency of the “racist bone” defense grew most quickly between 1981 and 1986 and almost always applied to Reagan or someone in his administration.

3
  • I couldn't get the Washington Post article to open in readable form because I couldn't get my ad blocker to stop blocking the page, which led the page to redact itself. Thank you for citing the claim that "racist bone in [one's] body" goes back to the mid-20th century. I'd like to find an instance of it from so early. At this point, cce's instance from a 1967 Jet magazine article is the earliest confirmed instance noted here.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 17, 2019 at 0:59
  • Is the source and link by chance the same one in the OP? You ask if "lazy bone" precedes that of "mean bone" but you didn't say if the OED lists the latter idiom, I'm going to guess it does, so my next query is why didn't you tell us the earliest date of "mean bone"?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 17, 2019 at 11:29
  • @Mari-LouA7-16-2019 - so edited
    – lbf
    Jul 17, 2019 at 11:46
1

The earliest example I've found of "racist bone" is in an October 30, 1966 New York Daily News article about the governor's race in California between the incumbent, Democrat Pat Brown, and Ronald Reagan. Brown, commenting on the aftermath of the Watts riots, is quoted as saying "My own 84-year-old mother, and there isn't a racist bone in her body, is frightened."

Slightly different versions of the same quote appeared in other papers that day and in the next few days.

2
1

To supplement to the phrases cited by other answerers, I offer the following phrases not previously mentioned, organized chronologically from earliest first occurrence to latest first occurrence:

honest bone

From Tim Bobbin, "Village Events," in Tim Bobbin's Lancashire Dialect and Poems (September 1828):

Mary. Say! why by my troth it was fair cheating ; but it's just like their rascally tricks ; for there's not an honest bone in the hide of never a greasy tyke of 'em all.

idle bone

From Thomas Cooper, "Tim Swallow-whistle, The Tailor; or 'Every Dog Has His Day'," in Wise Saws and Modern Instances, volume 1 (1845):

He was full forty years old when the incidents occurred we are about to relate ; and up to that time, as he used himself to say, "Nobody could ever say he had an idle bone in his skin."

dishonest bone

From "Board of Supervisors," in the [San Francisco, California] Daily Alta California (May 3, 1870):

Mr. Badlam replied at some length, and spoke warmly against the measure. Shrader, he said, was always to vote away money; still, he would not say there was a dishonest bone in his body.

cruel bone

From William Thomes, The Belle of Australia, or Who Am I? serialized in Ballou's Dollar Monthly Magazine (November 1883):

Sure, he hasn't a cruel bone in his whole body, and he loves yer to distraction, and ivery night he drames of yer, or some one else, and calls yer name, and mourns for yer."

cowardly bone

From "Butler and Porter," in the Pittsburgh [Pennsylvania] Dispatch (May 19, 1889):

In your issue of May 5 I was very much surprised to find General Ben Butler accusing Admiral David D. Porter of cowardice and turning tail to the enemy. Now, I have had the honor of a command in the nary under Porter, and know that he has not a cowardly bone in his body.

deceitful bone

From Theodora Wilson & James Harvey, "After Many Days: An American Novel" (1892):

Rob's a little racketty, perhaps, but I never knew a man that had more friends. There's not a deceitful bone in his body.

bad bone

From Seumas MacManus, A Lad of the O'Friels (1903):

"Though I say it that maybe isn't expected to say it," said Corney Higarty generously, "he was a warrior and a brave fella, and hadn't a bad bone in his body. ...

scheming bone

From "Official Proceedings" in The American Pressman (September 1907):

Any one who knows John Hamilton, the introducer of the resolution in the St. Louis convention, knows he is the soul of honor, and if there is a scheming bone in his body I do not know it.

From C.N. Williamson & A.M. Williamson, The Powers and Maxine (1907):

You know Raoul hasn't a practical bone in his body. He will think I've deceived him, and nothing else will matter.

vicious bone

From Temple Bailey, "The Voice of Gold," in the Greencastle [Indiana] Herald (January 27, 1908):

"Timid!" Gloria stared. "Why, he hasn’t a timid bone in bis body, Aunt Caro."

From Emma Hewitt, How to Train Children (1908):

The boy hasn't a vicious bone in his body. I've known him ever since he was born. If he has suddenly developed this tendency, it is purely physical.

honorable bone

From "No Vacations, No Pleasure, Just Buttonholes!" in the Chicago [Illinois] Examiner (April 9, 1911):

I’ll tell you the truth about yourself. You’re a, creature not fit to be called a man. You haven’t got an honorable bone in your body.

pessimistic bone

From "Spirit of Optimism," in The Spectator (April 16, 1916):

There was not a pessimistic bone in his body. Bill was made of optimism.

good bone

From Henry Stephenson, Christie Bell of Goldenrod Valley: A Tale of Southern Indiana and of Cincinnati in the Old Time (1918):

"I tell you, Terence Macmannihan, Carmichael Bell is a failure—an utter failure. There isn't a good bone in his body. He hasn't a single point. ...

reckless bone

From "Martha Lee Says: Folks Never Seem to Pick Out the Right Mate" in the Indianapolis [Indiana] Times (June 15, 1926):

Here's a girl who has gone into marriage with all the requisites of a good housekeeper—and not a reckless bone in her.

generous bone

From Anne Green, The Selbys (1930) [snippet view]:

... tasks that go with it; you Americans are a nasty commercial race, not a generous bone in your bodies."

philanthropic bone

From Grace Oursier, Ex-mistress (1930) [combined snippets]:

At the age of forty-five, there wasn't a gray hair in his red head, nor a philanthropic bone in his body.

malicious bone

From an unidentified story in The Saturday Evening Post (1932):

"Of course he'll talk to Sue about you, and about being your wife's uncle. Well, Sue will be amused, but she'll not repeat it. There's not a malicious bone in her body."

friendly bone

From "Sorrow Comes to Hungry Gully: The Burrcutter and His Mate," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Land (June 17, 1937):

"I hate, Fantod," declared Maudie. "There's not a friendly bone in his whole body. And Blue Horrors'11 be just as bad when he gets older. Like father, like son. Anyhow, they're insured."

kind bone

From Faith Baldwin, Temporary Address: Reno (1941) [cited quotation not shown in snippet window]:

You haven't a kind bone in your body or a selfless emotion. But I like you just the same.

dangerous bone

From Henry Lieferant & ‎Sylvia Lieferant, Teacher's Husband (1941) [snippet view]:

"Then that's fine. Fred Dexter the housewife's friend. Always helpful—never a dangerous bone in his body. Good old Fred—"

lying bone

From an unidentified story in Detective Book Club Selections (1943) [combined snippets]:

"You heard what Roncie said. That ends the matter, do you understand? There isn't a lying bone in the girl's body, Bob. ...

truthful bone

From Dawn Powell, My Home Is Far Away (1944) [text not visible in snippet window]:

Her stepmother declared she never heard so much nonsense in all her life, and there wasn't a truthful bone in Marcia's whole body.

religious bone

From Louis Paul, Breakdown (1946) [snippet view]:

"He's a liar, my dear. He hasn't got a religious bone in his body."

vengeful bone

Jack Woodford & ‎John Thompson, Honey (1951) [quoted text not visible in snippet window]:

There isn't a mean or vengeful bone in Honey's body and you'd only embarrass her. She has already forgiven you.

gracious bone

From Lily MacLeod, Return to Life (1951) [snippet view]:

There was not a gracious bone in my body. I knew it too, but I was powerless to do anything about it.

creative bone

From Edith Heal, The Shadow Boxers (1956) [snippet view]:

There wasn't a single creative bone in his body. His mind (he could see it sometimes when he sat with the bottle) was putty, abjectly willing to take on any shape that was suggested.

unkind bone

From Viña Delmar, "The Second Mrs. Thorpe," in The Saturday Evening Post (February 5, 1957) [combined snippets]:

He says, 'Underneath, Cammie means well. He actually hasn't an unkind bone in his body.' You understand, Mr. Cameron, I am quoting my husband. Personally I think you're just a natural-born jerk.

hostile bone

From an unidentified article in The Griffin (1960) [combined snippets]:

The gentle little "Irish" porter, Galy Gay, without an aggressive or hostile bone in his body, is transmogrified through a series of farcical events into one hell of a soldier.

spiritual bone

From Warren Miller, The Sleep of Reason: A Novel (1960) [combined snippets]:

He fixed himself a second drink, set the back of the unmodernized Morris chair at a forty-five-degree angle, and settled down with the Reverend Peter Paul's vigorous and forthright book. He groaned as he opened it. He had not a spiritual bone in his body.

courageous bone

From John Ehle, The Land Breakers (1964) [combined snippets]:

Her father had told him off, though. She hadn't thought he had a courageous bone in his body, and she guessed he didn't have but that one, the one he saved for old man Harrison.

pious bone

From John Gould, The Jonesport Raffle, and Numerous Other Maine Veracities (1969) [snippet view]:

He was a heathen, a pagan, an atheist, and anything else you want to call him, and he didn't have a pious bone in his body.

cynical bone

From Dick West, "The Lighter Side," in the [Palm Springs, California] Desert Sun (January 15, 1975):

But, thank God, I don’t have a cynical bone in my beautiful body. I always assume the officials in charge of these matters know what they are doing.


Combining the phrase inoted in this answer with the phrases cited in previous answers cited yields the following list, by year:

1826 "a lazy bone"

1828 "an honest bone"

1836 "a selfish bone"

1845 "an idle bone"

1858 "a mean bone"

1870 "a dishonest bone"

1882 "a jealous bone"

1883 "a cruel bone"

1889 "a cowardly bone"

1892 "a deceitful bone"

1903 "a bad bone"

1907 "a scheming bone"

1907 "a practical bone"

1908 "a timid bone"

1908 "a vicious bone"

1911 "an honorable bone"

1916 "a pessimistic bone"

1918 "a good bone"

1923 "an artistic bone"

1926 "a reckless bone"

1930 "a generous bone"

1930 "a philanthropic bone"

1932 "a malicious bone"

1937 "a friendly bone"

1941 "a kind bone"

1941 "a dangerous bone"

1943 "a lying bone"

1944 "a truthful bone"

1946 "a religious bone"

1951 "a vengeful bone"

1951 "a gracious bone"

1956 "a creative bone"

1957 "an unkind bone"

1960 "a hostile bone"

1960 "a spiritual bone"

1964 "a courageous bone"

1967 "a racist bone"

1969 "a pious bone"

1975 "a cynical bone"


Conclusions

It seems quite clear that "not a [modifier] bone in [one's] body" is a recurring and arguably idiomatic phrase in modern English. The particular wording "not a racist bone in [one's] body" seems to have arisen fairly late to the parade of related forms, but that is hardly surprising given that racism itself is a fairly young word—Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) assigns it a first known occurrence date of 1933.

One further point of interest here is how heavily freighted toward positive meanings the phrase tended to be in the early decades of its use. From the period from 1826 to 1908, I found thirteen forms of "not a [modifier] bone" that were positive (starting with "not a lazy bone" in 1826) and just two that were negative (starting with "not an honest bone" in 1828), Over the period from 1911 to 1975, in contrast, I counted ten forms that were positive and fourteen that were negative. Even so, the overall count of individual forms tends in the direction of positive expressions—twenty-three to sixteen. I haven't attempted to count the total numbers of positive and negative instances, but during the nineteenth century, at least, most instances seem to have expressed approval of the person to whom the phrase was applied.

Although I searched for as many "[modifier] bone" phrases as I could think of, the list of above is obviously not exhaustive. Many other positive and negative formulations undoubtedly occur in speech or in print from time to time. Also, I selected 1975 as the last year to include in my database searches, as I was more interested in forms of the phrase that preceded "not a racist bone" chronologically than in forms that followed it.

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