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What Does "Bone to Pick" Mean?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 17, 2024
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The idiomatic phrase, "a bone to pick,” in English refers to an argument or disagreement between two people. In some slightly different meanings, it can mean that someone has offended someone or done something wrong to them. Either way, if someone says, “I have a bone to pick with you,” they are expressing a problem or disagreement that exists between themselves the another person.

Experts date the origin of the phrase back to the 1600s. An alternative phrase, “bone of contention,” has also been established in the English lexicon. Both of these phrases relate to a specific metaphor. The metaphor is that of two dogs fighting over a bone. The word “pick” is related to the idea that a dog will pick a bone clean, or chew all of the meat and residual tissue off of the bone.

In a more general context, the idiom, “a bone to pick,” goes along with ideas of people, like dogs, having “territory” or “turf.” This does not really figure into most uses of the phrase, though, since it is frequently used not to describe a territorial issue, but instead, an issue of actions that are seen as offensive. In using the phrase, the speaker just generally shows that he is upset about something that someone else has done.

It’s important to note that for many English communities, the phrase “a bone to pick” has become somewhat obsolescent. In many cases, it is perceived as overly archaic, poetic, or colloquial. The use of the phrase, to some native English speakers, may also mark someone as old-fashioned or rural. Instead, many English speakers now use more direct, technical phrases to express the same idea.

The trend toward the more simplistic speech to express contentions is often visible in the business context. For example, it is relatively rare to hear English speakers in an office setting say to someone, “I have a bone to pick with you.” It’s more common to hear someone say “We have an issue” or “We have a problem here.” The person will then usually elaborate on what the problem is. Part of the trend toward using more simple, and thus, more abstract language, probably has to do with a move away from the argumentative tone of phrases like “I have a bone to pick with you,” which tend to carry a more personal tone.

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Discussion Comments

By Pippinwhite — On Feb 06, 2014

"Bone to pick" is nearly always heard more often in a personal setting, rather than a professional one, simply because it does carry a more personal tone. I don't think I've ever heard it in my office, unless the speaker was using the expression to tease someone.

I don't like seeing these phrases drop out of the language. They're part of what gives English its color, vibrancy and interest. We need these turns of phrase to spice up the language. Language without metaphor or expression is boring and dry.

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