I've noticed that Jim Kirk often refers to Dr McCoy affectionately as 'Bones'. Now, Memory Alpha gives the following explanation:

Bones is short for "Saw Bones" ... The use of "Bones" originates with the term "sawbones" in 19th century American medicine where military doctors, especially surgeons, were called "saw bones" because of all the amputations they had to perform during the Civil War.

Yet, there is no citation for this. My question is, what is the in-universe origin of this name? i.e. why was McCoy associated with a 19th century doctor? I am looking for information from TOS, not the Abramsverse.

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    Fun fact, in the German translation he is called "Pille" which means pill. I guess this is due to the fact that the translation for bone, "Knochen", would irritate German viewers.
    – Thomas
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 6:32
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    @user14111: just because Dickens is the first written source we have doesn’t mean that the term wasn’t popular, or popularised, in America during the Civil War. Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 8:05
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    @Thomas: Indeed! Nicknaming someone "Knochen", my first association would be that the person was meant to be dull, sluggish, unresponsive. Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 10:01
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    @OrangeDog that's like saying it's appropriate to call a pharmacist today an alchemist! From the perspective of TOS, it was set in the 22nd century, quite a while away from the 19th century Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 23:49
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    One of the bits to consider out of universe is that Star Trek TOS was on television in the heyday of the western television series. The audience would understand the linkage between 'Bones', 'sawbones' and doctor.
    – user12183
    Commented Aug 22, 2015 at 1:48

7 Answers 7


Kirk calls McCoy "Sawbones" in TOS: A Piece of the Action.

I would hypothesise that "bones" is a contraction of "sawbones".


KIRK: Knock it off, Sawbones. I want to talk to this creep. Now listen, I'm getting tired of playing pattycake with you penny-ante operators.

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    Great find! Richard strikes again ;) Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 7:53
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    That's episode 49. According to the transcripts on www.chakoteya.net, Kirk called McCoy "Bones" as early as episode 5 (aired 15 months earlier), and in the majority of episodes after that. Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 10:52
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    In case anyone's wondering why Kirk talks like a Cagney-esque prohibition-era gangster in this scene, this is one of those "We went to an alien planet which was weirdly like an era out of Earth's history" episodes. Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 14:51
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    @MaxWilliams - to be fair, this episode was based on the fact that a previous mission had left a book on gangsters (for some bizzaro-world reason) - their world didn't accidently end up that way. Unlike Bread and Circuses which is "just a coincidence." Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 17:24
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    @HannoverFist aha, that still doesn't make sense but at least there's a backstory, thanks :) Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 8:36

When interviewed regarding his Autobiography of James T. Kirk, Star Trek: Enterprise writer David A. Goodman stated his belief that "Bones" came from "sawbones":

The other thing that I’m very proud of is how Kirk came up with the name Bones. It’s not how it is in J.J [Abrams]’ movie, because in my mind Bones was a shortening of Sawbones, which is an Old West name for a doctor. I wanted something to happen in these guys' experience where Kirk would coin that nickname, and I’m very happy with that as well, in what I came up with.


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    I think the ancient history of the nickname reminds us that a lot has changed over the centuries but we're still from Earth, dammit. Which is true i think for pretty much his whole character!
    – ThruGog
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 7:13
  • @Richard : I just replaced the answer entirely. This fellow has some connection to Star Trek (has written for Enterprise) and did a lot of background research for his book about Kirk.
    – Praxis
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 7:35
  • Downvote removed. A much better quote although I'd far rather see something from someone involved in the original series.
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 7:40
  • Thanks. I'm chasing up a lead: apparently there is a book called Star Trek Memories where Roddenberry mentions the "sawbones" -> "Bones" contraction. But I don't have it.
    – Praxis
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 7:42
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    Just a side note that in the JJ Abrams alternate timeline, they explain this soon after Kirk and McCoy have met on a shuttle heading for orbit, with McCoy saying that he's joining Starfleet because he has nowhere else to go: "The ex wife took the whole damned planet in the divorce. All I've got left is my bones." Personally, I didn't like it (and Abrams says it was an ad lib by Karl Urban they decided to keep), since the sawbones theory makes such good sense. Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 13:08

TOS is a document of American culture in the mid 20th century. There are many period cultural references scattered all over that series.

Calling a doctor "Bones" is actually a US military cultural reference, a combat surgeon. While it originated from the "Sawbones" of the civil war, it was also in common use during the writing of TOS.

There are many other references to US military culture in TOS, and Star Fleet had to be at least loosely modeled on what the author was familiar with.

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    I appreciate the answer, but I am looking specifically for why McCoy in particular was called by Jim 'Bones'; I don't recall anyone else calling him Bones... Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 23:51

Kirk called Dr. McCoy "Bones" because Gene Rodenberry pitched "Star Trek" as "Wagon Train" to the stars, and gave the Dr. character the nickname “Bones” from the beginning. As previous answers have noted, “Bones” was a common nickname for a doctor in our culture at least since the Civil War, and would have been used in radio shows, movies, and TV shows, so easily understood and accepted by a general audience in the ‘60s.

This is specifically stated in Rodenberry’s original Series Format: "THE FORMAT is "Wagon Train to the Stars." Later in that document, in describing the U.S.S. Enterprise: "As with "Gunsmoke" 's Dodge City, "Kildare" 's Blair General Hospital, our Cruiser is a complete and highly varied community; . . ."

And finally, "Ship's Doctor. Philip Boyce, M.D. is a highly unlikely space traveler. . . . Captain April's only real confidant, "Bones" Boyce considers himself the only realist aboard . . . ."

Source: “The Making of Star Trek,” Stephen E. Whitfield, Gene Rodenberry, 1968, Ballantine Books, New York. It has been reissued many times. I bought my copy in 1973, and highly recommend it. It was written real-time, so is not distorted by people’s selective memories. And it’s hilarious. The Vulcan names memos still make me laugh out loud.

It’s been a while since I read it cover to cover, but I don’t recall any reason(s) ever being given in the backstory for Kirk to call McCoy “Bones.”


While it is pretty clear from the above answers that the author originally derived the name "Bones" from "Sawbones", the 2009 Star Trek movie suggests a different origin.

When Kirk and Bones first meet on the shuttle leaving earth, McCoy remarks that "My wife took the entire planet in the divorce. All I got left is my bones."

The movie can get away with that, since it is prequel to TOS. It does not necessarily change the meaning of the name, but gives additional detail about how the name came to him.

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    Gosh, this sounds familiar ;-) Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 17:15
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    "The movie can get away with that, since it is prequel to TOS" No, it's an alternate timeline. Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 17:15
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    The OP specifically said that he does not want information regarding the 2009 film, just The Original Series.
    – Praxis
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 17:17
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    not the Abramsverse. the OP requests. I get the idea he knows the line from that movie already.
    – JDługosz
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 23:44
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    Yes, as I do explain explicitly in the question, I'm not interested in the explanation in the Abramsverse! Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 23:50

Saw Bones was a common nick name for field doctors, and this is where the nickname comes from, as others have said. Also in the recon'd version of Star Trek form the films "Bones" was a nickname given from his first interaction with Kirk on a transport ship heading to Star Fleet Academy. "I lost everything in the divorce, all I've got left is my Bones." Is the quite I believe.

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    Thanks for the answer, but I did state in my question that I wasn't interested in the Abramsverse version. Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 6:34
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    The OP (@N_Soong) explained the meaning of "sawbones" in the question. The OP was seeking an origin for "bones" with a citation. Also, he explicitly excluded the 2009 film.
    – Praxis
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 6:34
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    Interesting trivia anyway: In the German version of the 2009 film, McCoy say "Das war eine bittere Pille" (That was a bitter pill) to make the text match the German nickname Pille for McCoy (cf. Thomas comment to the OP) Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 10:20

Kirk is a history buff..McCoy and Kirk go back many years.I recall Lenord giving Jim beautiful leather bound books for his BDay or XMass.Of course Kirk knows the origin and use of "Sawbones" because of his interest in early century publishing and history.Bones is a term of affection coming from Kirk-because McCoy knows Jim so well and his love of books.

  • History buff...Oh, you mean Picard. He hath quoteth such great works from Shakespeare. Commented Dec 11, 2020 at 18:39

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