Alexander Kim of Sarkoboros (see this LH post) has a very interesting post about an idiom I wasn’t familiar with. He starts with Chekhov’s 1894 story “At the Manor” («В усадьбе»), in which noble families are said to have been “strenuously in the course of centuries separating the white bone from the black [белую кость от чёрной],” adding that “white bone” is often rendered “blue blood” in English translations. He then writes:
White bone in opposition to black looks like a direct gloss of the famous Turko-Mongol idiom of noble and common birth, which has reflexes throughout Inner Asia and echoes in the kolp’um “bone rank” system of Silla Korea (C. S. Kim 1971, citing Ryū Imanishi, mentions also the ancient Japanese consanguinity terms kotsumei 骨名 “bone names” and shikotsu 氏骨 “clan bones”) and various Tibeto-Burman lineage and caste configurations (most notably that of the Yi, among whom the “blacks” or “black bones” are, in contrast to the Inner Asian scheme, superior in status to and rigidly averse to intermarriage with the softer-boned “whites”: Schoenhals 2003; Lu Hui 2001).
After a raft of examples, he concludes:
While some of the examples speak to social rank, others are actually cardinal-directional color assignments (the white west, the black north). Not clearly brought out is how qara “black” can also have the senses of great, powerful, terrible or large (e.g., qara mal, large domestic stock like horses and cattle) — but naturally the connotations are often intermingled or tilt from one to another (e.g., Anatolian Turkish Karadeniz ‘Black Sea’, various Kara-prefixed tribal and imperial names).
On an attempted inversion of valence (Vakar 1949:208–209):
One can read of “people of white and black bone” (L. Tolstoy), “black bone students” (Miljukov), and so on. A story prepared by the Soviet officials for use in Berlin schools, and vetoed by American authorities, related the triumph of “the blackboned proletariat over the worthless whiteboned bourgeoisie.” White bone, meaning “free status, noble origin, upper class,” is still a current idiom in Central Asia, presumably the country of its origins. Finally, the expression was given respectability by the Ušakov Dictionary, which defines it in the following terms: “(ironic.) noble, ‘lordly’ breed.”
Is there anything in older East Slavic texts or the rest of Balto-Slavic to injure the idea that “white bone”/”black bone” was a Golden Horde-era transmission?
Vakar asserts (206) that the terms “white” and “black” in connection with present Belorussia did not appear in literature before the fourteenth century. Credible?
What work of Tolstoy was it?
Good questions, and I figure just the sort of thing the multifarious readership of LH will enjoy sinking their collective white-boned teeth into.