Throwing a bone

2012-01-13 11:03



Throwing a bone

Reader question:

Please explain “throw me a bone” in the following: “Can you throw me a bone from time to time and answer my tweets?”

My comments:

Here it means “have mercy”.

Seriously, this twitter or tweeter – or whoever he is called, the person who tweets – is merely begging for the other tweeter, the person whom he tweets to, to return his tweets.

Or to tweet back. I guess this is a correct expression, but I am not sure. You see, I have a Weibo account but am practically a non-tweeter. I seldom log on, having swiftly found out that tweeting is twice time-wasting than instant messaging and perhaps ten times more time consuming than email.

However, I can empathize with this generation of tweeters – they use email, they are on QQ (a Chinese equivalent of, say, MSN messenger), they tweet, they blog and they are virtually online 24 hours a day, seven days a weak (week, pardon the slip but many of these young always-online folks do appear frail, pale and weak week in and week out) and yet they are lonely.

They participate on online forums and let rip their anger at authorities at various levels for making a mess of the environment or football or anything that doesn’t really matter and yet they’re quite friendless.

They stare into cyberspace and talk incessantly without bothering if anyone talks back to them. At any rate, they don’t seem to have enough real people to really communicate with, people in flesh and with blood, whom they can trust, count on and fall back on. As is confirmed by many polls, today’s people are LinkedIn but not linked. Real friends seem to be fewer to hang out with than before.

Hence, this pitiful plea for someone to throw them a bone from time to time and actually answer their tweets once in a great while. This would be similar to begging a lover to return one’s unsolicited lover letters back in the day. A sorrowful sight it always was to see anyone plunge deeper and deeper into the throes of unrequited love, be them the giver or the receiver.

Anyways, back to the act of throwing bones. This phrase is inspired by the commonplace scene of a dog owner feeding the pet a piece of bone. Not much meat on the bone but to the hungry dog, the bone is quite something to relish and chew over.

Not much meat, hm. Poor thing. The dog owner is pretty mean but that is not the point of discussion here. The point of discuss here is, metaphorically speaking, he who throws a bone is still seen as doting on the dog, even though a meatless bone is not much to speak, or eat off, of. The thrower is still giving out much needed support and encouragement of sorts.

The receiver of the bone, on the other hand, is grateful. He is so desperate and deep in need of help that he cannot afford to mind the manner in which such small generosities are given out. Or as the Irish say, beggars can’t be choosers. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, ended his short story The Crack-Up (originally published in Esquire, April 1936), with:

I shall manage to live with the new dispensation, though it has taken some months to be certain of the fact. And just as the laughing stoicism which has enabled the American Negro to endure the intolerable conditions of his existence has cost him his sense of the truth -- so in my case there is a price to pay. I do not any longer like the postman, nor the grocer, nor the editor, nor the cousin’s husband, and he in turn will come to dislike me, so that life will never be very pleasant again, and the sign Cave Canem is hung permanently just above my door. I will try to be a correct animal though, and if you throw me a bone with enough meat on it I may even lick your hand.

You get the picture. To the hungry dog, a little is a lot.

To get a better picture, though, let’s examine some recent media examples of people throwing, or receiving, a bone:

1. White House chef Sam Kass told NBC's David Gregory this week that the First Family has the same type of holiday meal at the White House that they had long before coming to Washington.

"We just have fun and enjoy really traditional dishes, just like dishes that are being eaten all over the country," he said.

Kass has the luxury of a full garden just outside the White House kitchen when he cooks. Of course, with Michelle Obama's focus on healthy eating, balanced meals are a must at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

"There always has to be a vegetable on the plate, and it always has to get eaten -- that's for sure, that's non-negotiable," he said. "But we also make sure we're having fun. We have kids in this house and so you know, we throw them a bone every once and while, give ‘em something that's fun now and again."

- A traditional Thanksgiving meal on tap for First Family, Los Angeles Times, November 24, 2011.

2. In terms of the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement, the former involves an element of deceit not necessarily found in the latter. A plagiarist takes information from another and deliberately attempts to pass it off as his own, whereas one who infringes copyright does not necessarily attempt to pass off the infringed material as his own (e.g. music sampling cases) and in some cases may not even be aware he is infringing someone else’s protected expression (e.g. the George Harrison case).

Despite the deceit involved, plagiarism is not illegal per se. If I copy the answers of a fellow student’s math exam, for example, I have plagiarized and violated academic standards, but have not violated copyright law because the solutions to the math questions are facts and not copyrightable in the first place. Likewise, if I were to copy literary criticism from the 19th century (now in the public domain) and pass it off as my own I would be flirting with academic disgrace but not with violation of law.

How are accusations of copyright infringement followed up? Many claims are brought against well-known performers with deep pockets. While these defendants typically have counsel with a sophisticated understanding of copyright law, plaintiffs in these cases often engage lawyers with little experience or knowledge of copyright who take on such cases hoping for a share of a settlement award from a wealthy defendant.

The U.S. court system tends to be quite indulgent towards even the most specious copyright infringement claims and defending lawyers realize that a persistent plaintiff can be an expensive problem for their client and potentially damaging to their client’s reputation as well. Unfortunately, many music copyright infringement cases are, therefore, settled by defendants “throwing a bone” to opportunist plaintiffs to make them go away. This solution, unfortunately, only fosters more spurious infringement claims.

- What is plagiarism?, January 10, 2012.

3. Are you butting heads with your parents? Are they nagging you all the time, never trusting you, never giving you a break, never listening to you, always checking up on you, and making you want to do the opposite of everything they say? Do you want to know how you can help yourself and get your parents off your back? Throw them a bone!

As annoying as they can be, parents are predictable and mostly want the same things:

1. Parents want you to do well in school

2. Parents want you to be safe

3. Parents want to keep some control over you

When you throw your parents a bone (that is, give them what they want), most likely they leave you alone. When you don’t, they are guaranteed to bug you, monitor your activities, and deny you.

Doing well in school is the most basic, straightforward bone you can throw to your parents, and it’s entirely on you. Don’t expect your parents to cut you any slack if you miss class, don’t complete work, perform below your potential, or get in trouble on campus. If you do any of these, you are inviting scrutiny and harassment from your parents, and they have every right to get on your case. If your parents are all over you about school, here are some bones you can throw them:

Attend all of your classes on time, everyday, no matter how boring, even if you are mildly ill. No parent can argue with perfect attendance and promptness.

Complete all work, and update your parents regularly on what you are doing. You have no idea about how pleased they will be when you communicate these details.

Ask for their help (if needed), and if they can’t help you directly, ask them to help get you tutoring or some academic accommodation.

Get to know your professors, be nice to them, and participate in class. Then, convey this activity to your parents. They will feel proud, and trust you more.

Make an effort to avoid problems. Okay, I know, the other guy started it, right? Sorry, that won’t fly anymore. If you become involved in a conflict or disruption, it won’t matter to them how it started. You know all about the wrong crowds, the wrong places to be, and the wrong things to say, and if you make the choice to avoid problems, you will win points with your parents.

If you know you’re going to get a low grade, tell your parents up front. The longer the bad news delays, the more irritated your parents will feel.

A parent’s biggest concern is her child’s safety, and if your parents had their way, you would never leave the house after dark. Being an invincible young adult, you find this thinking completely irrational. Irrational or not, your parents will always worry about your safety. To make things better for yourself and keep their worry, checking, and harassment to a minimum, you need to throw them some more bones:

Check in frequently to let them know you’re ok, where you’re spending time, and with whom.

Talk to your parents about your activities, and don’t blow them off if they ask you about them.

Avoid hanging out with other people who drink, do drugs, or get into trouble. Even if you don’t do anything wrong, your parents will find you guilty by association, worry more, and possibly harass you. This may not seem fair, but most likely that's what they’ll do, so you’re better off preventing it.

Your parents don’t really have control over you. You’re too big and powerful now. We both know that if you’re determined to do something, your parents can’t stop you, nor can they force you to do something if you refuse. However, if you take this attitude with them, you are inviting trouble. Deep down, your parents also realize that they can’t control you, and they get really mad if you throw that message in their face, because they want to feel like they still have some control. Maybe they can’t stop you from doing certain things and can't force you to follow their orders, but they can still make your life unpleasant if they feel they have lost all influence.

“Who cares? What can they do?” you ask. That’s the wrong question. How your parents punish you is not the issue. You may not care about that, anyway. You would be smarter to ask yourself, “What are they NOT going to do for me when I need something from them, if I continue to remind them that they can't control me?” You already know: they will not do you any favors. How do you avoid this unpleasant conflict? Throw them another bone, of course. This one is easy, though. Just let your parents feel like they have some control over you. You don’t have to do anything special. If you maintain some basic communication with them; don’t taunt them with power and defiance; and try to follow some (or all) of the tips I’ve mentioned, your parents will feel in control, and you will be helping yourself a lot.

- Throw Your Parents A Bone, by Jason Sackett,, undated.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


Tail wind?

The inner circle?

Catbird seat

His hands are tied?

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)

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