Seven years ago, I wrote a post called “The Ubiquitous Butt.”
In it, I admitted my own distaste for the word, but acknowledged that butt had by then won a place in general usage:
The word butt in the sense of buttocks was once considered unsuitable for general use. Comedians used it to get a laugh, but it was not considered acceptable in polite conversation. Children were taught to use less offensive colloquialisms like rear-end or backside. Nowadays the word has become so acceptable that it has largely replaced buttock and buttocks, even in formal contexts.
The word is no longer just in comedy routines. The Mayo Clinic still calls it a “buttock lift,” but numerous other clinics in all seriousness call it a “butt lift.”
Entertainment vendors look for acts that will “put butts in the seats.”
In an MTV interview, Beyoncé reflects, “I guess my butt is natural.”
Cosmopolitan Magazine features an article called “14 Things Every Woman thinks About Her Butt”.
Illustrator Brian Cook’s book, Butts on Things: 200+ Fun Doodles of Derrieres, has five stars on Amazon. Not only does he sell the book, he sells different types of accessories printed with drawings of such objects as donuts, pickles, and flags. To every object, he has added an intergluteal cleft, i.e., “butt crack.”
These and other examples illustrate the social comfort that exists in American culture with both the word and the body part.
I was puzzled, therefore, when I read about what happened to Toby Price:
Toby Price, at the time the assistant principal at a Mississippi elementary school, was fired for reading a children’s book called I Need a New Butt to 240 second graders on a Zoom call honoring Read Across America Week.
In her letter of termination, the superintendent objected to specific features of the book that would have most delighted its intended audience:
She particularly took issue with the references to farting in the story and how “the book described butts in various colors, shapes and sizes (example: fireproof, bullet proof, bomb proof).”
According to the termination letter, the assistant principal was fired for “violating the standards of conduct section of the Mississippi Educator Code of Ethics,” but, according to Mr. Price, school administrators told him that “they were worried they would get complaints from parents about the subject matter.”
School administrators were so intimidated by the mere possibility of a complaint that they fired a man who has spent twenty years working with children (and clearly understands them).
On the surface, the administrators’ fears and unwillingness to have their teacher’s back are inexcusable cowardice. But, in light of the current rash of state legislation forbidding specific words, concepts, and books from being taught—plus draconian penalties for offenders—their fears become understandable.
What about the writers of children’s books? Are publishers, counting on sales to school libraries, going to censor author submissions based on as yet not articulated complaints?
It’s significant that PEN America (a nonprofit organization that works to defend and celebrate free expression in the United States through the advancement of literature and human rights) has come to Price’s defense, urging the Hinds County School District to reverse their decision. The Price incident is one that touches writers.
The word butt for the human posterior will always make me feel uncomfortable, but I recognize that this is a personal hang-up. I can tell the difference between something that causes discomfort and something that causes harm. There’s nothing in Dawn McMillan’s book that comes close to the vulgarity of the toilet paper commercials with the bears. And I’ll bet more than 240 second-graders have watched those more than once.
1 thought on “Butt Redux”
Generally speaking, in Britain and other Commonwealth regions besides perhaps Canada, the word butt in the sense you describe in this piece is still widely regarded as a crude Americanism (however fair that may be), associated with raucous television sitcoms syndicated from US studios, like the tedious and ubiquitous “Friends”. Yes, the word in this sense is heard in coarser utterances, but the other meanings still have commonplace supremacy in British and Commonwealth usage; viz., the noun for a large water-collecting container, the noun for a blow struck with the forehead (or horns if you’re an ungulate) and the verb to describe the aforesaid blow with the forehead.
While on the topic of the latter two meanings, it seems to be a peculiarly American proclivity to call such action a headbutt (sic) and the verb to headbutt (sic). It leaves people sometimes scratching their heads and wondering whether the omission of “head-” to describe a butt might cause Americans to be confused about which part of the anatomy is being used to do the butting. There may be something in that, given what the author of this piece describes as a growing adoption in the USA of the crude variant. In Britain, to be butted by, say, a goat or another person would be understood as “with the head” and headbutt (sic) seen as a tautology..