The Grammarphobia Blog: Getting down to the bone

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Q: In Joe Biden’s first visit to the Mideast as president, he said the connection between the Israeli and American people was “bone-deep.” Is that another Scrantonism?

A: No, “bone-deep” is not a Scrantonism from President Biden’s early childhood in Pennsylvania. Nor is it an American regionalism. Although the term was first recorded in New England, it has appeared in writing in the US and the UK since the 19th century.

Interestingly, two similar expressions are much older, “to the bone,” which dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, and “skin-deep,” which showed up in England in the early 17th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “bone-deep” literally as “to a depth that reaches or exposes a bone” and figuratively as “to the core” or “very deeply.”

When the term first appeared, it was an adverb used figuratively. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a Jan. 28, 1839, letter by H. W. Green, a former editor of The Eastern Argus in Portland, ME, to Francis O. J. Smith, a congressman from Maine.

In response to a letter from Smith to another Maine newspaper, The Frankfort Intelligencer, Green says he’s “branding bone-deep upon your forehead, if the records of infamy already written there have left space sufficient, a word which I would never use in controversy with a gentleman—the word LIAR!”

The dictionary’s next adverbial citation, another figurative use, is from “Modern Logicians,” an 1861 article by Sir William Hamilton in The British Controversialist and Literary Magazine, London:

“The trenchant weapon of the consummate analyst is pointed to the flaw in the mailed armour of his opponents, and he cuts bone-deep into the seemingly secure harness.”

The OED’s first example for “bone-deep” used adjectivally is figurative too. We’ve expanded the citation to give it context:

“We who were in and of the army could feel an instant and bone-deep change in the men around us when it became known that Field-Marshall Lord Roberts was coming out to take command” (The Times of India, June 12, 1900).

The OED says “bone-deep” is “frequently figurative and in figurative contexts.” Most of the dictionary’s examples are figurative.

The earliest literal usage cited is from The Illinois Medical Journal, August 1904: “A bone-deep incision is carried from the femoral vein along the pubic ramus to the origin of the pubic spine.”

As for “to the bone,” the OED defines the expression this way: “right through the flesh so as to reach the bone. Frequently hyperbolical, or in figurative contexts.”

The first Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an Old English letter by Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham that includes what it describes as the torture of the Apostle John by the Roman Emperor Domitian:

“Domicianus hatte se deoflica casere, þe æfter Nerone þa reðan ehtnyssa besette on þam cristenum, & hi acwealde mid witum. Se het genyman þone halgan apostol & on weallendum ele he het hine baðian, for ðan þe se hata ele gæð in to ðam bane.” (“Domitian, the most devilish emperor after Nero, cruelly persecuted the Christians and reigned over them with torments. He commanded this holy Apostle to be taken & bathed with boiling oil, for hot oil pierces to the bone.”) From Ælfric’s Letter to Sigeweard, written in the late 10th or early 11th century.

The earliest figurative use of the expression in the OED is from The Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of religious and moral advice written in verse around 1250: “Betere is þe holde loverd þen þe newe, þat þe wole frete and gnawe / To þe bare bone” (“Better is the old lover than the new, who will devour and gnaw to the bone”).

Finally the dictionary defines “skin-deep” as “penetrating no deeper than the skin; on the surface only; superficial, shallow.” When the term first appeared in the early 17th century, it was an adjective used proverbially to indicate the limits of beauty.

The earliest OED citation is from “A Wife,” a poem by Thomas Overbury describing the qualities a young man should look for in a wife: “All the carnall Beautie of my wife, / Is but skinne-deepe.” The poem was published in 1614, a year after the author’s death.

The dictionary’s first literal example describes a schoolchild’s injuries in playground brawls: “His wounds are seldome aboue skin deepe” (from New & Choise Characters With Wife, a collection of sketches by Overbury and others that were published in 1615 along with his poem).

We’ll end with a historical note: Overbury, who was a secretary, close adviser, and friend to Robert Carr, a favorite of King  James I, wrote the poem in an attempt to persuade Carr not to marry Frances Howard, the estranged wife of the Earl of Essex.

She and her family, led by the Duke of Norfolk, are said to have plotted against Overbury, resulting in his imprisonment in the Tower of London, where he died on Sept. 14, 1613. The Essex marriage was annulled 11 days later, and she married Carr, then Earl of Somerset, two months after that.

In 1615, a Yorkshire apothecary’s assistant confessed on his deathbed that Frances Howard had paid him £20 for poison to murder Overbury in prison. She, her husband, and four others were eventually convicted of the murder. The King pardoned the couple; the four others were executed.

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