Bones / Sawbones

Hold still

Dear Word Detective: I’m interested in the origin of “bones” referring to a doctor. I see the reference to dice, but where did the term “bones” referring to a doctor come from? — Dr. Dave.

That’s a good question. The timing of your query is also interesting, because the most well-known modern use of “bones” in this sense was probably in the old “Star Trek” TV series and subsequent movies, where the character of Dr. Leonard McCoy went by the nickname “Bones.” As it happens (and I’m still not sure how it happened, something to do with Mothers Day), I recently went to see the latest product of the Star Trek movie franchise. Cleverly titled “Star Trek” (huh?), it’s a “prequel” to the TV series, with the twist that all the familiar characters are played by suburban teenagers. Like “Bugsy Malone” with phasers. On the bright side, you do get to hear a character ask, with a perfectly straight face, the classic Seinfeldian question, “Are you from the future?” Oh dear, if the poor thing actually had a plot, I’d probably have just spoiled it.


Good heavens, man. You've swallowed the premise!

It’s true that “bones” has been used a slang for “dice” since at least the 14th century (“Thou won’st my money too, with a pair of base bones,” 1624) because dice were originally made from the bones of animals (including ivory and whalebone). “Bones” has also long been used to mean pieces of bone (again presumably from some non-human animal) rattled as accompaniment to other musical instruments (“Wilt thou heare some musicke… Let us have the tongs and the bones,” Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

“Bones” referring to a doctor apparently originated in the US military in the 19th century, where it was often used as a nickname or form of direct address for a surgeon (“Bones, our surgeon — Dr. Sawin outside the service — broke into the room,” 1893). This “bones” is actually a shortened form of the somewhat older slang term “sawbones,” again usually applied specifically to a surgeon, which was in use in Great Britain at least by the early 19th century and possibly much earlier (“‘What, don’t you know what a Sawbones is, Sir’, enquired Mr. Weller; ‘I thought every body know’d as a Sawbones was a Surgeon,'” Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers, 1837).

“Bones” and “sawbones” as slang for a surgeon come, of course, from the surgical technique of actually sawing through bones in the human body for various purposes, today often to reach otherwise inaccessible regions of the body in order to fix them. In Dickens’ day, however, sawing bones was almost always done for purposes of amputating an arm or leg. While surgeons no doubt performed less draconian procedures every day, it was the lopping off of large bits of the anatomy that understandably caught the public’s eye, thus giving us “sawbones” as a common slang term for the profession.

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