Saturday, September 25, 2004

On 'Boning Up'

A friend from graduate student days once opined that the expression ‘to bone up’ originated from the notion of getting one’s bone, or manly member, up over a subject-matter, i.e., getting aroused by it. He delivered himself of this opinion half-facetiously on the occasion of my mentioning that I had to ‘bone up’ on my Descartes in preparation for a meeting with one Veronique, an exotic Descartes scholar with whom I was reading Meditationes de Prima Philosophiae. It is clear that my friend’s etymology falls into the pseudo category.

Turning to Hendrickson for enlightenment, we find this:

It [‘bone up on’] was first used in the 1860s by collegians, and they apparently first spelled the bone in the phrase Bohn, probably referring to the Bohn translations of the classics, or "trots," that they used in studying. British scholar Henry George Bohn (1796-1884) was the author and publisher of many books, including the "Classical Library." (Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, p. 91)
Lest anyone get carried away, Professor Bohn bears no responsibility for ‘bonehead’ or ‘pull a boner.’ (Cf. Hendrickson, p. 91)