A Cigarette Butt is One Thing…

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In standard English usage, the word butt has numerous meanings as both a noun and a verb.

The OED offers 14 entries for butt as a noun. The meanings vary from “barrel” to “a type of one-horse cart.”

Perhaps the most common definition is

a. The thicker end of anything, esp. of a tool or weapon, the part by which it is held or on which it rests; e.g. the lower end of a spear-shaft, whip-handle, fishing-rod, the broad end of the stock of a gun or pistol.

Butt meaning “barrel” gives us the expression to be the butt of a joke. This use stems from the custom of setting up archery targets on barrels. The butt of a joke is the target of a joke.

The meaning “remainder of a smoked cigarette” was first recorded in 1847. The sense of “human posterior” has been in use from 1450, but ancient use does not necessarily confer acceptability in standard speech.

To my ears, butt as a word for the human posterior is for informal use, more or less on a par with bitch as used by some speakers as a generic term for “woman.” That’s why I was startled to hear it used in a television commercial the other night:

Better legs and better butt with every step.

To my ears the ads that use this phrase are more offensive than the ones with the baby bear who can’t wipe his bottom without leaving behind scraps of toilet paper. At least those ads use the word “bottom” for the anatomical area under discussion.

In mulling over my reaction to this use of “butt” in an ad intended to be aired in every living room in America, I reviewed the many expressions in English that can be used to refer to a person’s backside.

I’ve probably used them all at one time or another, but not indiscriminately.

Some words for the human posterior seem to me to be acceptable in ordinary speech, no matter who is present. For example,


Some I’d use only if I felt some irritation with the person whose anatomy was being referred to. For example,

hind end
fanny (Caution: this one does NOT refer to the same bit of anatomy in British English as it does in American English.)
ass (arse in British usage)

Some words I’d reserve for moments of jocularity or perversity:

gluteus maximus

As a copywriter I might use “butt” in an ad to be placed in a specialized publication read by young people, but not for one intended to be run during national television prime time.

It’s a generational thing, I’m sure. I hear plenty of young people use it as if it were perfectly acceptable in polite company. Still, advertisers might think twice about using it in ads intended for a general audience.

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23 thoughts on “A Cigarette Butt is One Thing…”

  1. So – using posterior and bottom for the fundament each sits upon. How does that euphemism come about?

    Bottom is hardly descriptive, unless you mean “the bottom of the torso”. Or are the limbs so reviled as to be ignored in polite conversation?

    There is the lap, a socially defined area of the body without a direct anatomical description. Perhaps we should refer to the “under the lap” area, thought that has another implied usage, in intimate or vulgar context.

    Another euphemism you might add to your list, though. In the local school system teachers instructed students to take a seat with “Sit on your pockets!” with an assumption of pockets in the back of the average pants. Objections by those without pockets, were ignored.

    I read that at one time, mentioning any part of the body was considered rude, about Victorian times I imagine. Speaking vulgar words at table like “leg” or “breast” just wasn’t done. So the practice of describing chicken parts by “white meat” and “dark meat” are with us today. Of course, the breast of the chicken is lighter in color, and different in texture, because most chickens don’t fly, they don’t exercise those muscle groups. Sort of like fowl veal. Ducks, especially wild ducks, do fly, and the flesh of a Duck breast is about as dark as the legs.

    In an era years after Presidential candidate Bob Dole publicly advertised Viagara for erectile dysfunction, when Pamela Anderson assured that every household in America knows about breast augmentation, it seems pointless to try to close the barn door on explicit reference to body parts. In that context, I imagine the copy writer was considered quite reserved, in sticking to the relatively benign reference of “butt”. Possibly rump, keister, and bum are the only other terms on your first two lists that are actually names for the area targeted by the advertised product, and not a contrived euphemism. That, and used in the context of exercise and body condition, butt is probably the best technical term to use.

    Heck, your ad didn’t even use “gams” for “legs”.

    Part of what has changed, that makes this ad copy seem reasonable to me, is that the ad, like much of American culture in the aftermath of the introduction of adult spam, is comfortable explaining just what body parts they promise to improve. This ad sounds more like a personal trainer talking than an advertising editor at the New York Times. Sorry – I don’t think you are allowing enough for the context of the ad, and the way adult spam and sex education classes have undone many Victorian restrictions in common speech. Oh, and Dr. Ruth. Don’t forget what Dr. Ruth did for broadcast talk shows and advertising.

  2. No mention of “fanny” in this post?!?

    As a writer and (sometime) ad copywriter, I’ve no doubt that the use of “butt” in the offending ad was entirely intentional; to convey a friendly informality to the message.

    Finally, a pet peeve. From the post: “than the ones with the baby bear who can’t ….”

    “The ones”? How about: “… than those with the baby bear…”

    Fodder for a future post, eh?

  3. Daeng Bo: How severe you are on the foibles of others! As I say in the post, I do not shrink from using any of the words given, but in different contexts. I’d have no difficulty telling a nurse or an investigating policeman that someone had been injured in the buttocks. I would not have been offended by the use of the word “buttocks” in the Reebok ad. A person’s reactions to specific words often have as much to do with age and background as they do to the word itself. To me, “butt” is not a polite word. Hmm, I feel a post coming on.

    Frank: “Fanny” is in the post–with a caveat.

    Iapetus999: I think the meaning “thick end” may also have something to do with the way “butt” is used.


  4. “Some words I’d reserve for moments of jocularity or perversity:

    It appears from the article that you have a need to euphemize certain body parts. Why is that?

    “I’d have no difficulty telling a nurse or an investigating policeman that someone had been injured in the buttocks.”

    This second statement doesn’t seem to line up with the one you made in the article. Would you care to help me understand?

  5. Daeng Bo,

    Let me put it this way.

    The Victorians felt that out of sight meant out of mind. They wanted to appear to only concern themselves with “higher thoughts” – nothing carnal, having to do with the mundane body. As far as I can tell, there were a few ascetics that actually embraced the concept, the rest were as “earthy” – or even as depraved – as any community. But the image was all. Thus, no, “arm” and especially “leg” were not permissible in “polite” society. Everything got covered up. That prejuduce still exists today.

    Nudists don’t much talk about body parts. What is visible is a body, not arms, not legs, not buttocks. A person, an active, living entity of spirit and flesh, with motivations and stress, with family and goals and bosses and pets – and taxes. About the only time I hear body parts mentioned was “Put a towel under that butt.” (Nekkid people etiquette – you put a towel under you when you sit.)

    Today’s western world exposes a lot. In the context of the Reebok ad, I agree – butt is a technical term, and a reasonable use of the description of the body part most people recognize, where “toning the gluteus maximus and other upper leg muscles” would likely miss most of the target audience. More people buy shoes than recall much of their anatomy class lessons in muscle group names. But – you still don’t hear body part names that are customarily covered up.

    I guess Reebok might have claimed to “tone and firm the cleavage at the top of the legs”.

    The phrase chosen, though feels to me as if it was deliberately chosen as a semi-dirty word, an invitation to join in a group indulging in a ribald prank. A bit of shocking displacement of attention, to bounce the reader’s attention against “naughty” thoughts – like the shape of a body, underneath “proper” clothes.

    Dang. I have about talked myself into agreeing with Maeve, that the use of the word butt, in this ad, was rude, and deliberately chosen to be rude and vulgar. Reminds me of the Monty Pythin skit about “Man with three buttocks”. Which indeed was intended to be rude. *sigh*

  6. Maeve, I agree with you 100%, and I DO belong to the younger generation. Growing up with my parents, words like “butt” were considered as bad as dropping the F-bomb. You didn’t use them in ANY company, polite or otherwise. It’s nice to know there are more people out there besides just my family who are offended by a lot of the advertising these days.

  7. That’s what I get for getting up late and first reading my emails at 11 AM….8 posts on this subject, wow…
    Just to stick my 2 cents in, I agree with the first post (Iapetus999) and assumed that “butt” was a shortened form of “buttocks” (regarding the gluteus maximus area). However, after reading that “butt” can refer to the thicker end of something, I can certainly see (if I look behind me in a mirror) another reason that it can mean the same area. My only complaint about calling it “gluteus maximus” is that the derriere is actually made up of more than just that one muscle (OK, two, since there is one on each side), not to mention the fact that some of us (sigh) have “lardus maximus” on top of the “gluteus maximus,” and the former actually makes up more of our butts than the latter. Maybe I need a pair of those Fit-Flops….

  8. Daeng Bo(new comment) on December 15, 2009 3:03 pm
    “I’d have no difficulty telling a nurse or an investigating policeman that someone had been injured in the buttocks.”
    This second statement doesn’t seem to line up with the one you made in the article. Would you care to help me understand?

    I shouldn’t have put buttocks with the last grouping. I think that is what has confused the issue for you. I DO use buttocks as the ordinary word, but in other contexts the word sounds comical to me.

    I’ll try to express it more clearly.

    I use the word buttocks when I’m talking about the body part without any attendant emotion or insinuation. And I would find the word perfectly acceptable and inoffensive in an advertisement for an exercise machine that “firms the buttocks.”

    In ordinary conversation, however, I am much more likely to use one of the many euphemisms because if I’m talking about somebody’s buttocks, I’m probably joking or criticizing. “Buttocks” doesn’t seem appropriate in such utterances as these:

    Get off your fat buttocks and take out the trash.
    That girl has cute buttocks.
    Did you notice the size of his buttocks!

    Unless you were Dr. Brennan in the TV show Bones. She would say buttocks in every context.

  9. “To my ears, butt as a word for the human posterior is for informal use, more or less on a par with bitch as used by some speakers as a generic term for “woman.”

    Whoa! Maybe it is a generational thing, but I don’t think those examples are on par at all. I would say it’s more on par with “chick” – perhaps MILDLY pejorative, but mainly just casual and slangy.

  10. Well, I have to say that I was a little shocked when I first heard that ad (since I ‘watch’ ads while surfing the web). I didn’t look up in time to really see what the fuss was all about so had to wait until it came up again.
    I felt the same reaction to it the second time. It seemed in very poor taste, very much like my three year old trying to get a reaction out of me. One thing I’m learning to excel at is keeping a straight face.
    I can’t imagine that their target demographic was teens. I would guess that their target was more along the lines of women in their late twenties and older. I’m not that old, but perhaps their advertising company should have remembered that the ‘late twenties’ demo is smaller than the ‘and older’ section – and worded their ad so as not to offend anyone with either too graphic or too contrived euphemisms.
    No matter what, all this ad did was make me lose respect for Reebok.

  11. I recently stumbled on this site, liked it, so kept coming back. Now I’m going to have to pass.

    As a woman (over 30), I find it incredibly insulting that you think using the word “butt” is as great an offense as calling a woman a bitch. You care to suss out the difference? Here, let me help.

    The word “butt” encompasses both men and women, while “bitch” is a derogatory term aimed directly at women with the intent of degrading. It’s also sometimes used to emasculate men.

    “Butt” is a common term used all over the English-speaking world by children and even my aged great-grandmother. Generational my butt.

    Fantastically absurd waste of a post.

  12. Chalk me up as one who considers “butt” a somewhat offensive (and really annoying) word to use for the sitting parts.

    For decades I have loved participating in aerobics classes at my local gym, but sometime in the 90’s it became de rigeur for the instructors to punctuate commands with “butt,” such as “Move that butt!” “Lift your butt!” “Squeeze your butt!” and on and on. That word just grates on the nerves anyway, but using it in reference to the rear end is, in my opinion, an evidence of the general disrespect people tend to have for each other, their possessions, and “parts.”

    Just sayin’.

  13. Here in England we seem to be a lot less uptight about all this. In the nursery we use’ bottom’. Casually we’d say ‘bum’. ‘Posterior’ would be very arch humour. The proper English word, of course, is ‘arse’, with direct ancestry back to our Indo-european roots. This is still considered a bit risque for some, but is not uncommonly heard from parent to child. It is to the wears of many of us here infinitely preferable to the prissy American by-form ‘ass’, which for us is still a donkey!

  14. @Tony, I don’t know why anybody is getting bent out of shape over this. Bath & Body Works has its own version of shoe gear to tone legs and “butts”; the concept is not new (except maybe to Reebok and/or to sneakers specifically).
    At least where I’m from (NYC/Jewish), we would use “tushy” or “tush” to a child (as in asking your toddler, “Did you remember to wipe your tushy?”). “Ass” is still kind of slangy or jarring, IMHO, no matter when and where it’s used (as in “you’re an ass,” “piece of ass,” “sit your ass down,” etc). “Butt,” to me, is more of an acceptable, almost anatomic word (as in short for “buttocks”), because if I had just come from the gym I might very well say “my butt is so sore after that workout!” “Posterior” is (to me) in line with “derriere,” a little more demure and euphemistic.
    And as long as I’m dissecting poor Maeve’s entire list…”booty” seems to be the current fave in rap/hip-hop music, and at least to me conjures up a mental image of something round and “out there” intentionally to draw attention to it for flirting/sexual purposes (with or without clothing, I guess). “Buns” is sort of like “butt,” except maybe smaller LOL. “Heinie” is another kiddie term “Get your heinie in here right now!” or “I’m going to spank that heinie if you do that again!”) “Caboose”….hmmm…that is kind of insulting, as it seems to imply a very large rear end…and speaking of rear end, that’s an OK term too. You might say your rear end was killing you after a long workout, but you also might tell your kid to get his rear end in his seat to sit down for dinner (if you were kind of annoyed at him). “Fundament” is a new one for me, and I like it, very amusing. I am not sure anyone I know would have a clue what I meant if I used it. I am sure I’d have to explain myself. “Haunches,” “hind end” and “rump” are OK for animals, with the parallel drawn to human anatomy understood. Rump is a little more derogatory, to my ears, and sounds “larger” than haunches or hind end. “Keister” reminds me of something a detective like Columbo would have said, something from my dad’s era (he is 75 now). I still find that word amusing but almost never use it myself; not that I wouldn’t. It’s kind of like “rear end” but I think would be sort of humorous, again, if used when complaining of soreness in that area after a workout, or if one had been sitting in long meetings all day and was stiff after finally getting up (“My keister is killing me”). “Bum” is decidedly British. In the US, it means a dirty/homeless/alcoholic/lazy good-for-nothing person, or, one’s son-in-law (LOLOL). Just kidding, just kidding. Fanny…well…I always felt bad for anyone named Fanny. This one is like “rump,” to me. Kind of insulting because of the implication that it is large/round/fat. Also kind of an old-fashioned term (where I’m from), in the sense that my elementary school teachers might have told us to put our fannies in our seats, etc. Not a word I hear much these days. Makes me think of “Fat Bottom Girls” (Queen’s ode). “Backside,” “rear” and “bottom” are all pretty much the same, to me, although the last would again more likely be something you’d use to a child (“Sit on your bottom).” There, I’ve finished. I guess it just depends how old you are and where you come from. All in all, I think “ass” is the most offensive in the list (especially since it is often combined with other words to form insults). I am totally not offended by “butt,” (even though it, too, can be combined with other words to be insulting, e.g. butthead). Now, to work. Thank you for your kind attention to this post, get off your fundaments and have a productive day!

  15. This reminds me of how I end up eye rolling at the bowdlerizing of common, every day things.

    Every time I hear “buttocks” or “bottom” in an ad, a fitness ad especially, the only thing I can think of is that the company is prudish and ashamed of what they do. If you use “buns” in a commercial, you’re not just prudish and silly, you’re unprofessional and should have skipped the ad altogether.

    If you can’t be casual about it, you’re either going to sound like a medical textbook or an idiot, so you’re better off just avoiding it completely since you obviously feel such shame in speaking about *that* area to the point you need to find cute little potty words to “nice” it up. Thats fine if your audience is under 10 years old, but I should think anybody mature enough to hear your ad can handle the completely benign “butt”, if not, maybe you’ve got the wrong market for your product/service, eh?

  16. Body Part Maps

    Anthropomorphic maps were generated by configuring the body of a god or goddess over the area to be mapped. The name of each part of that body became the name of the area under that part. This produced a scale 1:1 map-without-paper on which each place name automatically indicated its approximate location and direction with respect to every other place on the same map whose name was produced in this way.

    Aphrodite as an Anthropomorphic Map

    The goddess we call Aphrodite
    Is not just an old Grecian deity.
    The Phoenicians did make
    Her a map. It’s not fake.
    Her body is cartograffiti.

    The Punic war destroyed her face, (1)
    The Romans left nary a trace.
    But her hair is still there,
    In Sahara, that’s where. (2)
    And her chin’s a Tunisian place. (3)

    Mt. Atlas is her first verTebra. (4)
    Her backbone is now Gulf of Sidra. (5)
    Her heart is in Libya, (6)
    Her left leg, Somalia. (7)
    Her breast is in Chad wearing no bra. (8)

    The Greeks called her liver Egypt, an’ (9)
    Her kidney was Biblical Goshen. (10)
    She’s bent at her waist,
    Now Misr-ably placed. (11)
    The Red Sea was her menstruation. (12)

    As a kid I did think the Red Sea
    Was an English map typo: lost E,
    From Reed Sea in Hebrew.
    But that could not be true,
    Mare Rubrum ’twas Latin, B.C.

    Aphrodite with Hermes did sin,
    We know this is true ’cause within
    Her “snatch” we call Sinai (13)
    His “zaiyin” does still lie. (14)
    It’s known as the desert of Zin.


    (1) The Romans destroyed Carthage during the 3rd Punic War. In Hebrew, “face” is PaNim.

    (2) In Hebrew, “hair” is Sa3aR (using 3 for the letter aiyin).

    (3) Tunis is a reversal of SaNTir, the Hebrew word for chin.

    (4) The Atlas is the first cervical vertebra that supports the skull.

    (5) In Hebrew, SHiDRa is spine, backbone.

    (6) The Semitic term for “heart” is LeB.

    (7) In Hebrew, “left” is S’MoL.

    (8) In Hebrew, “breast” is SHaD.

    (9) As in ancient Greek hepato- “liver”.

    (10) The ancient shin had a T-sound, e.g., SHoR = ox was ToR as in Taurus. The gimel often has a K-sound in other languages, e.g., GaMaL = camel. So, GoSHeN sounded like QTN, as in QiTNiot = beans. Goshen was her bean-shaped kidney. Ashkenazi Jews do not eat beans on Passover. Cotton was exported from QTN / Goshen. The Latin genus for cotton is Gossypium. Compare English gossamer.

    (11) Both Arabic Misr and Hebrew MiTZRaim are derived from the Semitic term for narrow, TZaR. The waist is (or should be) the narrow part of the body.

    (12) In Latin, the Red Sea was called Mare Rubrum. In Hebrew, the Red Sea is called “Yam SooF” = Sea of Reeds. SooF is a reversal of the sounds in peh-sof PoS, Hebrew for the female pudenda.

    (13) In Hebrew, Sinai is spelled SINi without an aleph. But it is pronounced as if had an aleph after the nun. It seems that the ancient sound of aleph changed from CHS/GHT => T => a glottal stop. Treating aleph as CHS, Sinai sounded like SNCHs, a reversal of K’NiSah = entrance (to her body).

    (14) Zaiyin means “weapon” in Hebrew. It is also a euphemism for the male member.

    Israel “izzy” Cohen, Body-Part Maps moderator

  17. Where and when I grew up, “butt” was a slang term, but not as bad as “ass.” I still think of it as being disrespectful. I remember my mother being disgusted by an add for something that would give someone “buns of steel.” Her argument was that people should stop worrying about that part of their anatomy and think of more meaningful things to dwell upon.

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