Is It "Buck Naked" or "Butt Naked?"
Which Is Correct: Buck Naked or Butt Naked?
Alright, I’ve done it again. Done gone and geeked up and put all that English major stuff of mine to work blowing almost an entire day trying to, once and for all, determine which is “correct” between the phrases buck naked and butt naked.
For those looking for the fast and simple answer to use for a paper or other written work, here it is:
Buck naked is correct.
However, both terms are regularly used, and given the frequency of use of butt naked in recent times, an argument can be made that there is nothing wrong with using it either. It may still be in the slang category, but it is slang that is used by a lot of people.
So, that’s the fast summary of my article. Go with buck naked if you need to get a good grade on something that is going to be read by some spectacles-wearing old professor somewhere, or if you want the longer tradition on your side. In fact, if you really want a good grade, just use naked and skip the buck part all together, since that’s not an essential adverb, and it’s practically slang too, just old slang. If you’re writing for yourself, for an audience that isn’t judging you for some stuffy reason, feel free to choose whichever you like better. The point of language is to convey meaning, and either will get your point across.
Reasoning and Approach
Alright, for the two people on the planet who will care beyond just getting it “right” on a paper or something, I spent some time nosing around the college library and in my Oxford English Dictionary. The OED does not have any listing for either term, which I confess was a surprise, because they do have some hyphenated buck-something type terms in there, and I have seen buck-naked written as a hyphenated word rather than a phrase. But, it wasn’t in there, nor was butt naked. So, I was left to my own devices. For the purpose of this article, I have divided the examination in half, with the first half of the article covering the OED trends and implications, and the second half looking at other research.
At first I did the basic Google search to see what I could come up with. I found a pretty cool conversation here and here, but I couldn’t really find anything that satisfied me completely. This second conversation did have some meat to it, but there was too much reliance in the first part on desktop dictionaries using lots of words like “probably” and “possibly” and on OED citations in the second that seem a bit like red herrings with more “probably” and “maybe” stuff in them. So, being the nerd I am, I set to the task of looking around to try to add further clarity. Since the “naked” part of these two phrases is not the issue, I decided to focus on the first word for each to try to find a “rightness” for one over the other. I may occasionally resort to humor or juvenile amusements along the way, but that can’t be helped, this is a research project that I did of my own accord and therefore subject to such things.
That said, I started with buck. In my opinion, there is no contest between appropriateness or most likely evolution of the term. Again, in my opinion, buck naked is clearly the “correct” term. Here’s what I found:
The Research: Oxford English Dictionary - BUCK
Buck in its original forms (buc and bucca) referred to a male deer (buc) and a male goat or “he-goat” (bucca) respectively, or at least all the best evidence and some reasonable thinking determine. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the terms back to at least the 11th Century, saying:
So far as the evidence goes, OE. Buc was used for the male deer, and bucca for the he-goat, but the instances are so few that it is far from certain that the words were thus distinguished in meaning. (“Buck,” sb1 Forms II: 609)
So, what we have on buck--as a prefix for naked--is the beginnings of an association with sex (gender), particularly male, and typically, as I will show, associated with breeding or sexual characteristic. The term goes on to have many definitions, but most are around this idea. Now, I’ll admit that the OED does not make this conclusion, but I don’t believe it is a long shot for me to draw this conclusion. But, you be the judge.
The first definition given is “The male of several animals” and goes on to list in sub-definitions the he-goat (used from 1000 CE through 1869), the male fallow-deer (1000 – 1774); the chamois; “any animal of the antelope kind, the male of the hare, the rabbit and the ferret” (1674-1904); “a ram” etc. (“Buck,” sb1 def 1 a-d II: 610). So, it’s not hard to see the association from long ago.
Further definitions include that of being a vaulting horse for gymnastics (something you “mount”) and of, perhaps ironically, of a “fop” or “a gay” (“Buck,” sb1def 2b II: 610).
Moving down the massive evolution and list are references to behavior that is typically male, and typically youthful male, and also to persons of Indian (S. American “Indian”), “…any male Indian, Negro, or Aboriginal” (“Buck,” sb1 def 2d II: 610).
Now, I have not done exhaustive thesis-intensive research into the historical and cultural roots for this particular entry, but I have had enough ethnic studies coursework and over-all literary and historical reading to venture that this use of buck was pronounced by whites as a condescending term. The first verifiable instance in English writing appears to be in 1800 and the last in 1964, this last a reference from Australia. I find it an interesting coincidence to see the term die out around the time of civil rights victories in the U.S., but, very possibly this is just that, a coincidence. Again, I am not declaring myself the keeper of English and diction, nor am I the person who can proclaim right and wrong regarding this term. I am merely reporting what I found, and tossing in the odd observation here and there.
During slavery, and during the Western expansion, attitudes about white superiority are well documented, and the dehumanization of “the other” with animal associated words are quite in keeping with that attitude. So were fears of sexual unions between “the other” and white women, fear of hyper-sexualized non-white men, and what seems to me a general sexual insecurity regarding the unknown or unfamiliar--which is what racial conflict is usually based in: what we don’t know and understand, we fear.
In addition, the term “savages” was often used to describe native peoples, and descriptions or images of them being scantily clad abounded. There was at least a visual association with near nudity in this particular use, even if there isn’t a definition written somewhere acknowledging it. I don’t believe it requires a great feat of imagination to at least consider that, given this at least historically circumstantial evidence, using a sexually charged masculine term like buck, one that can be easily connected to scantily clad tribesmen, is in keeping with all these ideas. The professor (Prof. Paul Brians), participating in the conversation that I linked up near the start of this article believes the same, and he is quoted thusly:
“The Cassell Dictionary of Slang lists "buck naked" as early 19th Century and speculates, as did one of your sources, on "buck" as a variation on "butt"; but until someone comes up with an actual early citation, I'll stand by my etymology as more likely. Lightly clad blacks and Indians were commonly called "bucks" in the 19th century.”
His point was that his etymology, like what I’m working at, is based in reasonable evidence, not speculations. This does not make me (or him) right, nor does it make the origins politically correct. My point is not to pass judgment on language formed long before me, or you, or to write some revisionist or apologist history of those origins or likely origins. My point is to point out that there is a line of obvious evidence that points to one version as being the original and therefore "correct" use, and a total absence of evidence pointing to the other when it comes to finding evidence of long and broad use in the English language as widely spoken over a long period of time.
But if that’s not enough for you, I have more. Buck is also defined as “To copulate with” albeit initially said of male rabbits and some other animals. (“Buck,” v2 II: 611). The quote given in the OED is fun, so I’m including it, “Konyes buck every moneth” which is taken from a 1530s text listed only as "Palsgr. 472/1," but it made me laugh. That’s dirty talk from the 1500s. How fun is that? So, besides fun quotes and how fun sex is, the association with sex is proved in my opinion. Buck is not just a sex/gender term, it’s a sex term.
Sex is done naked.
You can argue that I’m making a huge, rabbit-like leap here, but that’s fine. I’m just pointing it out. All the arguments for butt naked are leaps, so it’s fair to include at least the better leaps for buck naked.
Speaking of naked leaps…
An association with clothing, or the lack thereof, can also be made directly. There are three references to clothes and by inference the absence of them, that have to do with linen and laundry:
- A washing tub, a vat in which to steep clothes in lye” (“Buck,” s3 1 II: 610).
- The lye in which it steeped relating to the first definition.
- “A quantity of clothes, cloth, or yarn, put through the process of bucking, in buckwashing or bleaching; the quantity of clothes washed at once, a ‘wash’. To lay the buck: to steep in lye. To drive the buck: to carry through the process of bucking. (“Buck,” s3 3 II: 610)
Now, the OED does not make the association with buck naked that I am. But, you have to admit that being naked is certainly what you would be if you were to have only one set of clothes and they were in the wash, being bucked. I would call that condition buck naked quite by definition.
And just to PROVE that point... (This is perfectly safe to watch, and funny.)
Again, I am only postulating this. But, since there is a clothes association here, and a sexual association above (sex really is done naked, by the way… just because I’m an English geek doesn’t mean I don’t know that. I've seen porn.), it is at least plausible that the idea of being “buck naked” is a natural occurrence, even if I can’t actually trace it back to the first time someone actually said, “Buck naked,” out loud or wrote it on a page.
And hey, speaking of porn, what is it exactly that you stuff in a stripper’s g-string (or throw on the stage if she’s actually naked), eh?
Why you are quite right, A BUCK. She gets a buck for being buck naked. Hmmm, coincidence?
The Research: Oxford English Dictionary - BUTT
Being perfectly honest, butt naked has no precedent that I can find that isn’t recent. In my estimation, it’s a dialectical evolution that combines the obvious nudity potential that one’s backside brings to mind with a sound-alike or homophonic coincidence. We don’t see one’s butt unless they are naked, so the association there is a pretty obvious one. Plus, there is a near homophonic relationship between “buck” and “butt” that might also come into play. I can’t prove it; I can only assert my authority (whatever of it I might have) based on my formal study of English and my study of language in general as an evolving thing both within a single culture and as it relates to the mingling of cultures, which often create dialectical/colloquial versions of words, phrases and ideas.
So "mounds or hillocks" eh?Click thumbnail to view full-size
The OED has several pages on the word butt just like it does for buck. However, in all honesty, there is not one thing in any of all that reading that I can even playfully associate with the term butt naked beyond simply: “3. A buttock. Chiefly dial. And collloq. In U.S.” (“Butt,” 3 II: 708), and “a mound or hillock” that mostly refers to butte spelled differently (“Butt,” sb5 II: 709).
That’s it. I’ll give it a huge stretch and say, a naked backside does look like a mound (or two) or a hillock, as the images I've included on the right will show. But for that to prove an etymologically viable link is really working too hard.
However, I’ll also concede that one OED definition is pointing out that it’s a backside reference--the backside of an animal like a pig. One violent and humorous old quote from 1450 read, “Tak Buttes of pork and smyte them to peces,” which I will translate for you, as: Take butts of pork and smite them to pieces. Kind of makes you wonder, what in God’s name did that pig do to piss that guy off that bad? I mean, sure, that could be an excerpt from a cook book and “smyte” means “chop up” like as if you’re preparing carnitas or something, but, were they writing cook books in 1450? I’m thinking not, that’s a little to close on Gutenberg’s heels to seem realistic to me. Plus, did anyone in Europe know about carnitas in 1450? I don’t think so, but hey, what do I know?
So, beyond smiting pigs to pieces, a small butt-shaped hill, and the acknowledgement that the use of butt as in “your booty” is “Chiefly dial. [dialectical] And Colloq [colloquial],” the OED is no help for attaching butt to naked. It’s definitely an American thing.
In fact, it may actually be a cultural thing too, although I admit I am really, really stretching here because my research was not exhaustive and is limited to what I was willing to do in five or six hours tops. However, I did run a basic EBSCO search through academic sources to see what I could find on the terms, checking to see who is using it, when and where. Based on my cursory look, there seems to be a black / white division suggested (which did come up in the conversation from my links above too).
The Research – Academic and Peer Reviewed Search
On searching the two different terms, I found twenty-two entries for buck naked and I found seven for butt naked. As I did with the OED examination, I will start with buck naked since it essentially won the contest for being the more correct of the two in my review. The purpose of this second section of my article is not so much to show "rightness" but to show who is using the term, where, when and why. My point is to build credibility for one term over the other given the writing credentials of the authors.
In a New York Times article on blushing, the journalist wrote, “Jane Austen heroines may pink endearingly at a subtle breach in manners; millions more glow like a lava lamp in what feels like a public disrobing: the face, suddenly buck-naked” (Carey). It’s a hyphenated version, but it still counts. So, my first piece of evidence for proper usage is found by this article, covering an academic study on blushing. This is an educated writer choosing this term to use in an academic discourse of a scientific nature. I think that is important to note.
My next example is a book about Doukhobors and, specifically, the Sons of Freedom. My point is not to go into the book itself, but to point out that it is a book written by a highly educated author, peer reviewed in academic journals, and published by a university press (University of British Columbia Press). The book: Negotiating Buck Naked: Doukhobors, Public Policy, and Conflict Resolution, by Gregory J. Cran (Friesen).
This is another example, perhaps a much better example, of a peer-reviewed, academic work written for educational purposes in the ethnic studies field. This is the title of the book, a very stand out position for the term, and one that at least implies a great deal of consideration by a smart author as to whether or not buck naked counts as correct grammar. Given the topic, and the audience, I count this as a strong piece of evidence in favor of buck naked as “correct.”
Next is a piece from mainstream media. In a Rolling Stone Magazine article, the lead singer for Eve 6, Max Collins was reported as having had a bit too much to drink by journalist Austin Scaggs, who wrote:
Collins went straight for the hard stuff after the band's May 26th show in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania — drinking shots of Courvoisier and Grand Marnier. "I was pretty drunk," he admits. Collins adjourned to his hotel room, stripped and ran around the hotel buck naked. At the front desk he asked for shaving cream, which he applied to his genitals. He spent a day in jail, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and paid a small fine.
Notice that the use of the term here is coming from the journalist, a professional writer, and not part of the quote from the inebriated musician.
For another piece of evidence, I found a reference to an “Ode to a Buck-Naked Cowboy” on this search too, but the link through EBSCO didn’t work. I did find the article though, and besides verifying the use of buck naked it’s an interesting read written by a clever and seemingly well-read fellow. [that link was taken down as of 8/20/11]
If you look like this when you are buck naked, you get to have an opinion.
Next is a People magazine article covering Brad Pitt and talking about his upcoming movie (Troy), they write:
After a two-year break from moviemaking, Pitt is returning to the spotlight and talking about his marriage to Jennifer Aniston (it's good), their baby plans ("It's time, it's time"), the joys of wearing a skirt in the movies ("They're not bad") and how he whipped his much-gawked-about body into shape for his Troy nude scene. Yes, nude scene. "Buck naked," Pitt says. (Adkins)
Now I admit, that example is almost cheating on my part, because the quote is actually Brad Pitt talking, and not the mainstream journalist. However, when Brad Pitt says, “Buck naked,” he should carry a lot of weight on this topic because, well, he doesn’t carry any extra weight when he is buck naked. Frankly, anyone in that good of shape gets to pipe in about how he should be described disrobed.
And I will point out again, that it is Brad Pitt saying it, not the journalist writing it as his own journalistic choice.
So, with all that written, I could go into all twenty-two sources, but I think I’ve at least made the point that academia, mainstream media and even guys who get buck naked in movies all say “buck naked” when they write for the national and world audience, and for audiences that might frown at unconventional or non-standard use of words. So, let’s have a look at butt naked and see what came up there.
Butt naked gets a rough start with me for being “good" grammar because none of the works in which it appear have the term being used by the writers or journalists themselves, the folks for whom grammar is essential to their careers. The uses I found, all seven of them at least, are more colloquial. It seems more a term of the people rather than of the writing establishment, and it is one that seems to be more African or African-American in use than in the larger populace (this was discussed in the conversation Professor Paul Brians was engaging in above). Here’s probably the best (or worst) example of this:
This is a link to a CNN.com video made by VICE (VBS.TV) that introduces a Liberian ex-general, who is known as General Butt Naked, a name he got for having fought naked at some point in his fighting career. It’s an interesting video, but you need only watch the first minute to get my point. (It gets kind of violent going further, so watch at your own risk.)
Below are the first three links that came up via my search:
After those three references, the next instance comes to me secondhand, but from the New York Amsterdam News. It comes in an article covering the murder of a child, and the community outrage that ensued because The New York Post actually showed the little three-year old in a picture for the article. I’m honestly a little oogy about using it as evidence, but it does add to my “colloquial” point, so I’ll do so with delicacy here. Simply, Councilman Charles Barron was infuriated by the decision to show that image by the paper, and he spoke out in an interview, in which he is quoted thus:
The New York Post is a disgusting rag. That paper needs to be banned. How dare they display that little baby, butt-naked and covered with blood on the front page. It shows that they have no regard for the family or the victim. (Arinde)
This quote is given, first out loud, not written, and secondly, this is an address meant to appeal on a human level, not an academic one. Rhetorically speaking, it makes much better sense for a politician to choose language that is not distant or sterile, and I think there is potential for this term to have at least some dialectical roots in the African-American community, given that all seven of the examples that came up in my EBSCO search are in one way or another, related to African or African-American stories or experiences and that it has been part of other discourses on this front as well, and also not to mention the pejorative nature of the other term. That all may be a coincidence, but I don’t believe it is so much a coincidence that it doesn’t bear at least pointing out. However, the main point I'd like to make with this one is that it IS a quote from someone speaking, not from a journalist writing.
Below are the remainder of the seven butt naked resources that came up:
I couldn’t get the article about Shaq to come up for some reason, so I went to the sixth item on the list, “Two Stage BLUES.” This reference was about blues musician Guy Davis and his album Butt Naked Free. Now I’m not a music critic, so I’m not qualified to discuss that at all, nor have I heard the album, therefore I can offer no opinion.
The seventh, and final article was also a blues music review, and the “butt naked” reference was to Mr. Davis’ album as well. And that was all of them. I only had seven to work with, and I didn’t want to make more of a project of this than it turned out to be. So I will leave it with that.
The bottom line being, for butt naked I can’t find any academic or popular media uses of this term, so it does not appear to be a phrase that is used by the writing community at large, at least not as is readily accessible by my admittedly brief research. I believe the phrase is a slang term, and perhaps one that is more prominent in the African-American community than elsewhere. More research would have to be done to confirm this, so I’ll just leave it as a speculation on my part and move on to my final thoughts.
The term butt naked appears to be mainly a slang term as of now, but one that is gaining popularity. The humorous first entry for buck naked on the website Urban Dictionary reads: “Americanized version of buck naked. Probably arisen from the Yank inability to speak English." I suppose that’s technically spot on, since I can’t find any solid academic or historical references to butt naked at all, and I will admit that we, as Americans, do take great pride in creating or embracing new things, especially when it comes to slang. Whenever an interesting or nuanced idea pops up somewhere, the nation typically leaps on it too, at least for a while.
The buck naked references I gave were taken from academia and popular media sources. These are all mainstream or academic publications who have an interest in not being slang ridden lest they risk losing credibility. Granted, one sites a quote from Brad Pitt, but I already gave my reasoning why that got in (writing stuff like this can be painfully boring if you don’t have some fun, and reading stuff like this can always stand an eye-candy break--I felt the bikini bottom pictures needed to be balanced out).
So, the bottom line is the same one that I made up near the top line of this article. Use by academia and media counts in my book, and the tradition of using specific diction in these types of publications, combined with the numerous and obvious historical connections between the word buck and acts of sexuality and lack of clothing, make buck naked a clear and obvious choice if one is seeking to be grammatically correct. Butt naked is slang. Maybe in twenty or forty years butt naked will become so normalized it will no longer be noticeable when someone speaks it, but for now, I am going to call that slang. Or at least, slangier than buck naked is.
Adkins, Greg, et al. "It's A Brad, Brad, Brad, Brad World." People 61.19 (2004): 17-18. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 29 May 2010. http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/ehost/detail?vid=3&hid=13&sid=bdc155dc-51cc-4ded-8c11-888a5e6e1cc8%40sessionmgr11&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=13089888
Arinde, Nayaba. "Tabloid's grave bad judgment." New York Amsterdam News 97.20 (2006): 3-38. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 29 May 2010. http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/ehost/detail?vid=2&hid=13&sid=c18075fd-af34-41a0-8fd8-c2f78190b617%40sessionmgr13&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=20968908
“Buck.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 1989.
“Butt.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 1989.
Carey, Benedict. "Hold Your Head Up. a Blush Just Shows You Care." New York Times, (2009): 5-4. 29 May 2010. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 29 May 2010. http://www.lexisnexis.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/us/lnacademic/auth/checkbrowser.do?rand=0.3945620634623779&cookieState=0&ipcounter=1&bhcp=1
Friesen, John W. "Negotiating Buck Naked: Doukhobors, Public Policy, and Conflict Resolution." Canadian Ethnic Studies 39.3 (2007): 236-238. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 29 May 2010. http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/ehost/detail?vid=2&hid=13&sid=8bd33845-f391-43d7-9887-9587247f28cb%40sessionmgr10&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=37355071
Scaggs, Austin. "EVE 6, SLIPKNOT BUSTED." Rolling Stone 926 (2003): 18. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 29 May 2010. http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/ehost/detail?vid=2&hid=13&sid=d39a6446-f38f-4b12-b19c-ae47e1dd27b6%40sessionmgr10&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=12018634