Charlene Moore notices the darnedest things in English. I always enjoy mulling them over because it inevitably gives me a tickle. Today she wanted to know why bone and debone mean that same thing. Well, it is a good question. Couple and decouple have opposite meanings. So do regulate and deregulate. May Day! May Day? What’s going on with bone?
Make no bones about it, to bone by itself means to remove the bones from whatever you happen to be operating on, just as to shell means to remove the shell from and to husk means to remove the husk from. So, I have no bone to pick with Charlene on this one.
However, as I boned up on the problem I discovered this: to bone also means to put bones in, as to bone a skirt with stays, originally made of whalebone. So, verbing nouns like bone can result in a verb meaning “to add to” or “to remove from”. To saddle, to soap, and to clothe all indicate adding saddles, soap, and clothes to something. In fact, the sense of addition is far more prevalent than the sense of removal, so that interpretation of bone would be far more natural. Hmmm. That could lead to confusion, couldn’t it?
Well, the solution is to add something to bone that would clarify the fact that we have in mind removing bones and not sticking them in. Now, what is the prefix we use for that? I know! DE-! Best of all, we will keep that meaning for both bone and debone so that any bonehead can use them without making a boner. Right? Right! Aren’t English-speakers smart? You betcha!