11

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.

  • 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. – sumelic Jul 17 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? – David Richerby Jul 17 at 15:02
  • @sumelic The OED has citations for "racialist" as an adjective slightly earlier -- 1924. – David Richerby Jul 17 at 15:05
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    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 – RaceYouAnytime Jul 17 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 at 0:44
15

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".

  • 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 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’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 17 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 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 at 9:38
  • 2
    I also hear "artistic bone". – Zebrafish Jul 17 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
    Thank you for the earlier instance. It seems entirely on point. – Sven Yargs Jul 17 at 0:55
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.

  • 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 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 at 11:29
  • @Mari-LouA7-16-2019 - so edited – lbf Jul 17 at 11:46
2

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
  • Great research, as always. Thanks! – Sven Yargs Jul 18 at 7:43

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