Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Bone Up On

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 16, 2016

When someone is busy boning up on something, they’re busy studying something that they need to know — either because they didn’t know it before or because they’re forgotten some of what they learned on the subject.

With the U.S. primaries in full swing, even presidential candidates are boning up on all kinds of subject including Bernie Sanders who admitted to Univision anchor León Krauze on May 30, 2016 that he didn’t know as much about Central America as he should.  The article was published in Vibe  magazine ran with this headline: Bernie Sanders Admits He Needs To Bone Up On Latin American Politics.

It was back on June 4, 1971 that the Star News reported on the wedding cake the White House chef, Henry Haller,  would be creating for Tricia Nixon’s wedding.  The article titled, “Wedding Cake Recipe Stirs Up Controversy” dealt with the cake recipe White House chef shared with the media — a recipe he claimed was a favorite of the First Lady.  The problem seemed to be that  the recipe called for the use of egg whites only (and too many at that), the size of the pan, and other related problems.  The New York Times went as far as to state that when it followed the recipe to the letter, the cake they wound up with was a complete failure.

UPI’s food editor, Jeanne Lesem, said, “The White House needs a good proofreader and its chefs need to bone up on American culinary history.  Pound cake recipes called for one pound of butter, sugar, flour and eggs.  Whole eggs.”

When the General Deficiency Bill of 1917 was being heard on Thursday, April 5, 1917 by the subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations of the United States Senate, Senator James W. Wadsworth Jr of New York addressed the matter of military publications.  He was concerned about the need for increasing numbers of copies of Drill REgulations for the different branches of the United States Army as well as other manuals.

In addition to the very evident desirability of having these publications distributed with the utmost generosity, particularly in the formation of a new army which will contain thousands and thousands of exceedingly intelligent young men, who always have been and always will be hungry to get hold of the drill regulations or manuals and the Field Service Regulations in order to “bone upon them and check themselves up in their drills, in addition to the thousands of copies that will be demanded for that purpose and which should be available in the training of any new great force, the Adjutant General’s Office finds itself in this situation.

Dr. F.R. Brown, MD sent a letter from Yokohama, Japan on May 7, 1873 that was published in the Philadelphia Medical Surgical Reporter.  He was delighted to report that his colleagues should experience Japan which he said was a rapidly emerging society thanks to the blessings of modern civilization.  He seemed to be taken with the country as well as its inhabitants.  His letter expressed his enthusiasm in great detail including this passage:

I started without any particular object in view, other than getting rid of the rheumatism and asthma, as well as the annoyance and responsibility of private practice.  Out here I find, to me, a new world and a new people.  The first thing I did was to get a Japanese and English phrase book, and bone up on it.  I own a ginrickshaw (a two-wheeled carriage, of infantile proportions, universally used here), and two bettoes (tattooed men).  One man is enough on level ground, but up hill it is necessary to have one man to pull and another to push.

Because the expression was used so easily by a medical man, it was reasonable for Idiomation to wonder if boning up had to do with medicine.

What Idiomation learned was that beginning in 1846, British publisher Henry George Bohn (4 January 1796 – 22 August 1884) created and published the Bohn’s Libraries which were editions of standard works and translations of historical, scientific, theological, archeological, and classic literature texts that targeted the mass market while focusing on low prices.  It was considered literature for the masses.

In all, he published over 600 volumes complete with bibliographical and critical notices, and large additions to the original works between 1846 and 1864 when he sold his business to G. Bell & Sons. The final tally of volumes in Bohn’s Libraries swelled to 766 in total.  For obvious reasons, Henry George Bohn was known as THE bookseller of the nineteenth century.

As with all the books in which he was involved in writing and/or publishing, he retained his copyrights, selling them at great profit when he did sell.

One of Henry George Bohn’s quotes is this one:  Business and action strengthen the brain, but too much study weakens it.

With that in mind, students who were cramming for exams turned to Bohn’s volumes which led to the admission that they were Bohning up on things that might be included in their exams.  The correct way to say Bohn‘s name sounded very much like the word bone and soon students were boning up on subjects instead of Bohning up on them.

Sometime between 1850 and 1873 (when Dr. Brown used the expression in his letter to his colleagues), the phrase became an accepted and understood part of language.  Idiomation therefore pegs this to between 1855 and 1860.

2 Responses to “Bone Up On”

  1. Erik said

    Great history, who would have thought. I can also assure you that reading select sections of your post to a teenager makes them laugh hysterically. Can’t imagine what they are thinking about….

    So how exactly do you track down these sayings? This was a particularly good one.

    • It would appear that Idiomation pleases a large demographic from historians to comedians. *wink*

      If by asking how I track down sayings you mean how do I choose them, there are two ways:
      1. Saying are suggested to me by friends, fans, and followers of the Idiomation blog, or
      2. Sayings are found in books I’m reading, movies I’m watching, or conversations I’m having.

      In this case, a friend mentioned to me that she was going to bone up on summer barbequing and it struck me as odd that I’d never wondered why people bone up on things at all. Now I know … and so do friends, fan, and followers of the blog. 🙂

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