August 15, 2004

Bu?? naked

Robert Johnson emailed to ask

I really enjoy reading your 'eggcorn' entries on the Language Log. I was wondering whether 'butt naked' vs. 'buck naked' is one. I’ve mostly heard African Americans use the former, while I always have used the latter. My wife, however, insists the former is 'right'. What do you make of it?

I didn't know the answer, and it looks like no one else does either. There are two stories out there. One story is that the original is "butt naked" and that "buck naked" is either a euphemism or a mishearing. The other story is the same, with the roles reversed.

The American Heritage Dictionary has an entry for "buck naked" whose etymology field says

buck- (perhaps alteration of butt) + naked.

The AHD's entry for "bare naked" adds more information in a regional note:

The chiefly Northern U.S. expression bare-naked illustrates the linguistic process of redundancy, not always acceptable in Standard English but productive in regional dialect speech. A redundant expression combines two words that mean the same thing, thereby intensifying the effect. The expression buck-naked, used chiefly in the South Atlantic and Gulf states, is not as clear as bare-naked with respect to its origin; buck is possibly an alteration of butt, “buttocks.” If so, bum-naked, heard in various parts of the country, and bare-ass(ed), attested especially in the Northeastern U.S., represent the same idea.

In Common Errors in English Usage, Paul Brians claims that "butt naked" is a mistake:

The standard expression is 'buck naked,' and the contemporary 'butt naked' is an error that will get you laughed at in some circles. However, it might be just as well if the new form were to triumph. Originally a 'buck' was a dandy, a pretentious, overdressed show-off of a man. Condescendingly applied in the U.S. to Native Americans and black slaves, it quickly acquired negative connotations. To the historically aware speaker, 'buck naked' conjures up stereotypical images of naked 'savages' or—worse—slaves laboring naked on plantations. Consider using the alternative expression 'stark naked.'

but I'm not sure he has any evidence for his assertion that "buck" is standard and "butt" is error: perhaps in this case "standard" just means "what they say where I come from."

"The Mavens' Word of the Day" at Random House has a different story, or rather a different set of stories, about the origins of "buck naked". The discussion doesn't mention "butt naked", but implies by omission that "buck naked" was an original development:

Buck naked, slang for 'completely naked' came on the scene in the late 1920's, and the qualified buck-ass naked a bit later. It's one of those terms which is most often accompanied by the irritating phrase "of obscure orig." or "origin unk." Given the preceding array of choices, one might hazard (as only one of my sources did) that the buck in buck naked refers to the color of buckskin, along the lines of "buff," as in "in the buff." But, while we're conjecturing, I might propose another possible etymology. Around the same time that buck naked was making its debut, so was another slang term, bucket, for 'buttocks, rump.' Shorten bucket to buck, and you've got a term for 'ass-naked,' which makes sense in a very, erm, transparent way.

The OED is uncharacteristically silent: neither "buck naked" nor "butt naked" appears, as far as I can tell.

Google finds 46,400 pages for "buck naked" and 210,000 for "butt naked", which is close enough to even to make it clear that both are well established.

FWIW, the AHD story sounds reasonable to me -- and Brians' notion that "buck" is interpreted by some as a reference to "savages" also sounds reasonable. This would mean that switches in both directions have had some euphemistic motivation, as well as the usual phonetic similarity and semantic resonances. There are apparently regional and perhaps ethnic differences in preferences for one expression or the other.

So which is "right" and which is "wrong"? That question can be interpreted to mean "which is the standard expression?" In this case, there's no clear answer. The question can also be interpreted to mean "which is the original expression?" There's no clear answer to that one either, though if the origins are really in the 1920s, someone may find some evidence eventually. The question can alternatively be interpreted to mean "which expression will make people think I've made a mistake, or will offend them for some other reason?" The answer to that one is "both, depending on the audience and the context". So you might as well do what comes naturally.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 15, 2004 10:33 AM