Bones have not only infiltrated the arts and popular culture, they also flavor place names. For some, the derivation is obvious, for example, Bone Creek, Saskatchewan; Bone Valley, Florida; Bone River, Washington; Bowlegs, Oklahoma; Bay of Bones, Macedonia; and Bone, Indonesia. Bone Cabin Quarry is a rich fossil field in Wyoming that was named for a nearby sheepherder’s cabin made out of stacked dinosaur bones.

For other locations, the connection is obscure. The Place of the Skull (Golgotha in Greek, Calvary in Latin) is the site near Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. The exact location is disputed, as is the source of the name. Perhaps the name denoted a skull-shaped hill or the site where Adam’s skull was buried or maybe a site rich in skeletal remains.

Undisputed in both name origin and location is the Calaveras River in California. An early explorer came upon skeletal remnants of Native Americans on the bank of a then-unnamed river and exclaimed in Spanish, “Calaveras” (“Skulls”). Later the surrounding county received the same name, which makes the title of Mark Twain’s short story much more rhythmic than if it had been The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Skulls County.

By the way, skullduggery has nothing to do with bones, although bonfire does. It is a condensation of bone fire and comes from the time when the marrow fat of bone fueled open cremation pyres.  

In the Middle Ages, surnames emerged, first usually describing a location (e.g., Hill, Rivers) or an occupation (e.g., Miller, Shepherd). I guess when they ran out of those, along came Bone, Boner (no kidding), Bonebreak, and Brisbane. I will leave it to your imagination how the Boner family got its name, but Brisbane is rooted in old English where brise meant break and ban meant bone; but your imagination is again required, because nobody knows whether this family suffered broken bones, broke the bones of others, or set broken bones.

What is clear, however, is that hundreds of years later, one Thomas Brisbane was governor of New South Wales, Australia, and he shared his name with the local river and government seat.

“City of Bones” is the nickname for Derry, Northern Ireland, and its coat of arms includes a seated skeleton. How this came about is lost in time. Some wag said that the skeleton was that of a citizen waiting for a decision from the city council.

Perhaps the first person with a bone nickname was Ivar the Boneless, about whom I have previously blogged. Other folk with osseous nicknames include Sawbones (historically, any surgeon), Billy Bones (character in Treasure Island), and Brother Bones (mid-20th century musician, known for his rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown). There are also Ebony Bones (British actress), Bonebreaker (Marvel comic character), BONES (rapper), and the hip hop group BoneThugs-N-Harmony, consisting of Bizzy Bone, Wish Bone, Layzie Bone, Krayzie Bone, and Flesh-n-Bone.

What is it about bone? Why aren’t any people or places named Kidney or Skin or Nerve? Bone rules!!

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