Buck Naked and Butt Naked

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has two questions about the idiom “buck naked”:

1. When did people start saying, “butt naked” instead of “buck naked”?

2. What does “buck naked” mean, anyway?

buck naked, adjective: completely unclothed.

In Old English, the word that is now spelled buck referred to a male deer. Later, the word also came be applied to the male of other species. For example, buck is the term for the male of the following animals:

deer
goat
kangaroo
mouse
rabbit
rat
reindeer
squirrel

Not surprisingly, buck became a slang term for a male of the human species. The earliest OED citation for buck used to mean man or fellow is dated 1303.

In the eighteenth century, buck was popular slang for a man who attended plays and other fashionable social events to be seen and admired.

In Australia, buck was used to refer to male aborigines. In the United States, buck referred to both American Indians and men of African descent. Examples of this usage may be found in nineteenth-century entries in the US Congressional Record.

Although various explanations have been offered, no one can say with certainty how the word buck came to be attached to naked.

The earliest evidence of “buck naked” on the Ngram Viewer, which is based on printed sources, appears in 1914. “Butt naked” comes along in 1924, but doesn’t make much of a showing until 1980, when it begins to soar.

Judging by a Google search, the newer term has taken over, at least on the Web:

“buck naked”: 509,000 results 
“butt naked”: 2,290,000 results

 

I prefer “buck naked,” because “butt-naked” strikes my ear as excessively vulgar. I cannot, however, argue that one is “more correct” than the other. Both expressions mean exactly the same thing. Both have found acceptance in colloquial speech. Neither, however, has a place in formal English.

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8 Responses to “Buck Naked and Butt Naked”

  • David Knuttunen

    Because of the racist connotations that the word “buck” has acquired, when referring to male humans, I prefer “butt naked”. The phrase “buck naked” makes me uncomfortable.

  • Bill Person

    I agree with the writer about the vulgarity as yet still associated with butt naked, though no doubt it will dissolve over time as that associated with words such as cr*p and sh*t appear to be doing. Though still jarring to my ear, those words are fast becoming normal in discourse here in Britain, e.g. in television and radio conversation.

    To the above commenter, I can understand such discomfort, though it has to be said that that connotation is absent in GB, where the word is only associated with male rabbits and deer (though hart is also heard). It is also used as a synonym for the antelope family (of either sex)., and, of course, heard as a verb.

    As for butt, I still use it for a barrel of the water-collection sort, but I was made mindful of this diminishing sense when I received an askance look on telling a friend I was visiting that I liked his butt, an elaborate set-up that blended well with his garden.

  • Roberta B.

    I’m sorry, but this explanation was way too PC (especially parts that were left out), and I understand why. So, I’m not going to be the one to try to explain my understanding of both origins either, except that one is an eggcorn of the other, whether out of intention or ignorance. Isn’t it disheartening when the speech police of society have cowed even those of us who have a sincere interest in the origin of words and expressions?
    David K – I suppose we can use the term “bare naked” from now on. Maybe it’s redundant, but it avoids the other offensive modifiers while still being descriptive!

  • venqax

    I agree and absolutely detest PC avoidance of anything. Obviously, as Roberta said, the term buck naked is earlier and butt naked is the all-too-typical alteration born of ignorance that too often drives language. I have no reason to give it the benefit of the doubt for being amended out of “sensitivity” as opposed to pure rock-headedness. The phenomenon is simply too common and the stupid “version” should be rejected. Anchors away, for all intensive purposes, tow the line, cut the muster, you’ve got another thing coming, a hard road to hoe, etc. etc.

  • Mike Rose

    I’m proud to say that I had successfully managed to be blissfully ignorant of anything “racist” or wrong with the word “buck” until today. In fact, I simply shrugged off “butt naked” every time I heard it, thinking happily to myself that those people just didn’t know any better. I’m going to cling to a vestige of hope and suggest that most people using “butt naked” are not doing so because they are intent on being politically correct and inoffensive, though the “butt” image conjured in my mind may or may not be offensive, depending on the butt in question, I guess. Snopes rejects the term “buck” as having anything to do with slaves. (Yes, I used the word “slaves” because that’s what we’re talking about.) Hey, there was a time when at least a few people thought that I was a “handsome young buck.” This period of time lasted about half an hour, if I recall, but it was an ego-boost when it happened. I’ll be so bold as to say that I’d be thrilled if anyone referred to me as a “buck” ever again. Yep. Won’t complain at all.

  • Precise edit

    Mary ran down the street wearing her new exercise outfit. Her husband ran beside her, but naked.

    By the way, I’m uncomfortable with using ‘buck’ to refer solely to males. That seems terribly sexist to me, and wholly lacking in sensitivity to … Never mind. I can’t even pretend.

  • Roberta B.

    Mike R – I’m not sure if we were reading the same Snopes explanation. The one I read said the use of “buck” as a synonym for dollar has nothing to do with the expression of “buck” as a male slave being used as a unit of currency or barter. It did not say that the term had nothing to do with slaves. (It goes on to explain that the probable connection to currency related to deer hides.) The article above states as fact that the term, typically reserved for animals, was used to describe male non-white natives of Africa, Australia, and the Americas (the racist part). It goes on to say “Although various explanations have been offered [but none offered here], no one can say with certainty how the word buck came to be attached to naked.” I can only speculate that climate had something to do with it when these natives were first encountered. (However, I’ve also heard there are other explanations going back to that slavery issue.) As said above, no one can say with certainty. As to that one point in time when some people thought you were a “handsome young buck,” it’s the animal thing, again. I suppose being compared to an animal, depending on context, can be a compliment.

    Now someone explain to me the use of the term “quid” as a synonym for pound sterling.

  • Roberta B.

    Sorry for a third post on this topic ,and I don’t mean to look like a blog hog. However, over a year has passed, and I’m still curious about this discussion. We can speculate that even the earliest human language was expressed in slang, colloquialism, and idioms. So, from all I’ve read on the expression “buck naked,” I’m making a leap by concluding its origin is related more to animal hides and is derived most likely from casual language way back in history when they were common units of trade. It’s possible, even likely, that a “buck naked” (used as a noun) was the colloquial term for a hide already tanned and ready to be sewn (pre-textile mill days), hence different than a [deer] pelt, or a “buck” (plain and simple) that seems to be the origin of its meaning for a dollar.

    So, way back then, when someone was observed in a state of undress, they humorously might have been be described as “buck naked.” There’s no excuse for ignorantly using the term “butt-naked” except that it sounds kinda funny (and a little vulgar); it’s an eggcorn, but also there should be no disgrace or racism in using “buck-naked” as a humorous adjective. As most people believe, it just means exposed skin in the barest form and would have no origins in reference to the condition or value in the sale of male slaves. That sounds to me like an urban myth or some much more modern interpretation co-opted by the PC crowd!

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