March 06, 2005

butt to buck, start to stark, or vice versa?

Back in August, I looked into the butt naked vs. buck naked issue, and concluded that it's a draw. Scholars disagree about which was the original expression, and current usage is roughly split as well. I referenced that discussion in my post today on Hobbesian choice, and Prof. Paul Brians wrote to disagree.

On your very interesting Web site you challenge my claim that "buck naked" is older than "butt naked." I'd be interested to see evidence of any use earlier than my first encounter with the latter, less than ten years ago. In 37 years of reading student writing and popular journalism, it's only recently that I've encountered the "butt" variation.

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.

Though it has a different origin, I associate this also with the common "nip it in the butt."

I certainly don't have any 19th-century citations for "butt naked", and I agree that Prof. Brians might well be right that "buck naked" is the original phrase. I'm not challenging his claim, just observing that others disagree, and determinative evidence seems to be lacking. However, I'm fairly confident that "butt naked" is more than ten years old. I recall hearing it as a child, as does someone posting on the bulletin board:

Half century ago in the rural southeast US the expression was "butt naked" (only we said something closer to "butt necked") and it just ment naked.

And several fairly authoritative dictionaries (in addition to the Cassell's reference that Prof. Brians mentions) suggest that "buck" was originally a euphemism or other alteration of "butt". The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) has

BUCK NAKED - adjective. Also buck-ass naked, buck-born ~, stark buck ~. Origin uncertain, but perhaps alteration of butt/buttocks. Entirely unclothed.

and the American Heritage Dictionary (perhaps echoing DARE) has

Etymology: buck- (perhaps alteration of butt) + naked.

So as far as I can tell, the jury is still out.

And though I don't have a citation, I do have a curiously exact precedent to point to. Starting around 1530, another expression of the form "X naked", where X was a word for "buttocks" ending in a /t/, was changed into a new expression "Y naked", where Y was X with the final /t/ changed to /k/. "Y naked" made just as much sense as "X naked", but it was politer. And this time the OED gives us the citations.

The OED glosses start naked as

Entirely naked; = STARK-NAKED a.

and explains the etymology as

[App. f. START n.1 + NAKED a.
The literal sense would seem to be ‘naked even to the tail’. Start has not been found in Eng. with the sense ‘buttocks’ (= TAIL n.1 5), but the MDu. and Ger. equivalents are so used.]

Citations start in 1225 -- and continue to the 19th-century American south:

a1225 Juliana 16 (Roy. MS.), & he het hatterliche strupen hire steortnaket [Bodl. MS. steort naket].
a1225 Ancr. R. 148 Heo haueð bipiled mine figer..despoiled hire stert [printed sterc] naked, & iworpen awei [etc.].
Ibid. 316 Bicleope þine sunne steornaked; þet is, ne hele þu nowiht of al þet liþ þer abuten.
13.. Pol. Songs (Camden) 336 Sholde he for everi fals uth lese kirtel or kote,..He sholde stonde start [printed starc] naked twye o day or eve.
c1320 Cast. Love 431 in Minor Poems fr. Vernon MS. xxxviii, And I-strupt him al start-naked.
a1325 in Horstm. Altengl. Leg. (1878) 140 Þai lay þerin all star naked.
1892 Dialect Notes (Amer. Dial. Soc. 1896) I. v. 234 Start-naked: stark naked. ‘He is a start-naked villain.’.. Mr. A. W. Long, of North Carolina, reports that he never heard any other form than start-naked used in conversation in that state; and that two of his friends --- one from Virginia, and the other from South Carolina -- make the same statement for those two states.

The OED entry for stark naked states unequivocally that it is "altered from the earlier START-NAKED", with the earliest citation from 1530:

1530 PALSGR. 842/1 Starke bely naked, tout fin mere nud... Starke naked, tout fin nud.
1560 J. DAUS tr. Sleidane's Comm. 356 They left them starcke naked.

So "butt naked" would be a straightforward calque of a common expression whose word for "butt" had dropped out of the language. Of course, this would be much more persuasive if someone could find a citation...

By the way, the "bely" in the first citation is belly, and the expression "stark belly naked" also has a citation in the entry for belly (and several others in the LION database):

1611 COTGR., Tout fin mere nu, all discouered..starke bellie naked.

The OED entry for stark naked references sense 2 of stark as adverb, glossed as "To the fullest extent or degree; absolutely, utterly, quite". A phrase meaning "absolutely naked" is at least as reasonable as one meaning "naked to the tail" -- though for the first hundred years or so, people often stuck in another piece of anatomy, just for good luck:

165 And then forth shalt thou, sterk belly naked,
166 With dogs arrand quen, thou shalt be bayted.
(Walter Smith, 1525, "The fyfth mery Iest, or etc.")

601 Glad was this man, and with his gladnesse waked,
602 But scarcely had he opened both his eyes,
603 Before he felt his wife starke belly naked:
604 And found his finger hid betweene her thighes.
(Robert Tofte, 1611, "THE FOVRTH SATYRE OF Ariosto")

[A curious side note: according to an article in Slate by Mark Scheffler, in Liberia around 1989, Joshua Milton Blahyi went under the name of "General Butt Naked", commanding the "Butt Naked Battalion". That takes butt naked back 15 years, but more important, it suggests that "butt naked" is the normal expression in vernacular forms of Liberian English, where it may have traveled an independent path for the past 150 years or so.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 6, 2005 02:06 PM