Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 11, 2011
Somehow, dice sound so much more menacing when referred to as devil’s bones. So menacing, in fact, that the phrase was used by writing team Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson as the title for Jefferson Bass book “The Devil’s Bones” published on February 5, 2008. According to Douglas R. Cobb of BestsellersWorld.com, the novel is a “page-turning, nail-biting thriller” that is guaranteed to keep the reader burning the midnight oil reading it.
On March 9, 1962 the Windsor Star published a news story entitled, “Dirty Boneshakers at Large.” The story was originally reported in London, England and addressed the new twist crap game that was making itself known in gambling casinos. At the time craps was one of the few games of chance permitted under Britain’s new betting regulations. The story reported the following in part:
Something must have happened to these rules in crossing the Atlantic. For it is hard to recognize in them the fine old traditional pastime as played on American street corners, in empty lots and in the gilded emporiums of Reno and Las Vegas. According to the weekly, dice are known to the “expert” as “devil’s bones” or “rattlers.” It does not say who these experts are or in what section of the United States they live.
That being said, the term devil’s bones was not an American expression that made it’s way to Britain in the 1960s. “The Fortunes Of Nigel” written by Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) and published in 1822, was the eighth title in his Waverly novels. The first, “Waverly” was published in 1814 and the last, “Anne of Geierstein” was published in 1829. The phrase devil’s bones is used twice in “The Fortunes Of Nigel.” It is found on page 68:
Stand buff against the reproach of thine over-tender conscience, man, and when thous summest up, like a good arithmetician, the actions of the day, before you balance the account upon your pillow, tell the accusing spirit, to his brimstone beard, that if thine ears have heard the clatter of the devil’s bones, they hand hath not trowled them — that if thy eye hath seen the brawling of two angry boys, they blade hath not been bared in their fray.
and once again on page 113:
“Your words must be still plainer before I can understand them,” said Nigel.
“What the devil — a gamester, one who deals with the devil’s bones and the doctors, and not understand pedlar’s French!! Nay, then I must speak plain English, and that’s the simpleton’s tongue.”
“Speak, then, sir,” said Nigel; ” and I pray you be brief, for I have little more time to bestow on you.”
The Poor Robin Almanac of 1676 appears to be the one of the first publications to link dice to the expression devil’s bones when it referred to them in this way:
… cards and dice … the devil’s book and the devil’s bones.
However, it is Sir George Etherege who is credited for having linked dice and the devil’s bones together in this written passage back in 1664:
I do not understand dice … hang the devil’s bones!
Idiomation was unable to find an earlier reference to dice as the devil’s bones and so it would appear that the phrase devil’s bones dates back to 1664.