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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Gary Parker:

In earlier days it used to be buck naked to refer to a person being observed totally nude. Today, I hear people using the term butt naked, referring to the same condition. Which is it? 

I think it has a connection to the slave trade and referring to a male slave as a Buck or male. Also to the fact that they were usually put on the sales block totally nude.

We prefer not to be drawn into discussions regarding which of two variants is "correct".  All we can say is that both are used. On the other hand, that doesn't stop us having an opinion about which came first and their possible origins.

Since Anglo-Saxon times, buck has meant a male deer and in Middle English its use was extended to several other mammalian species. The use of buck as a disparaging term for a man is as old as 1303 when an author contrasts berdede buckys ("bearded bucks") with crystyn mennys ("Christian men").  To members of the criminal underworld in the early 18th century, buck meant a daring person of either sex.  By the middle of that century the word had passed into common usage as meaning a dashing young fellow, a dandy with a tendency to acts of reckless violence.  

It was not until 1800 that the word came to be applied to the men of other races. Rather than being exclusively applied to slaves, buck was used to describe, generally in a demeaning and superior tone, a man of any race deemed to be "savage", whether he was African, Native American, Australian aborigine or Maori.  So while buck certainly has racist overtones, we think it unlikely that buck naked  derives from the practices of the slave market.

If we consider the written record, you are certainly correct, Gary, when you say that buck naked is older.  It first appears in early 20th century novels:

Fo Gawd's sake put on some clothes. You ain' to stand up buck naked like dat. You's a grown 'oman now.

- Scarlet Sister Mary, Peterkin (1928)

and next...

Den he try ter snatch de chile frum me, buck nekked as she wuz.

- Gone With the Wind, Mitchell (1936)

If buck naked did derive from the use of buck to mean "male slave" we would expect its earliest use to refer to male nudity, not female. What is more, if the "slave" origin were correct, buck naked should be more prevalent in white, not black, speech. Note that in both instances the phrase is used by African-American woman about a  woman or a girl.  These are, of course, merely fictional characters and their words are the creation of white authors but the authors were attempting, albeit clumsily, to recreate the black vernacular speech of North Carolina and Georgia, respectively.

It is quite possible that butt naked  is the earlier form. As a phrase, it not only makes literal sense but we see clear parallels to the English phrases bare-arse naked and bollock naked. A plausible explanation of the buck in buck naked is that it originated as a polite avoidance of butt.  The etymologists at The American Heritage Dictionary think that might be the case.  Michael Quinion, on the other hand, seems to think buck naked derives from buckskin, but he only mentions this in passing during a discussion of the word buffBuff, when referring to nakedness, as in in the buff, comes from the similarity of the color of tanned buffalo hide to human skin.  The definition of buffalo in this instance is a discussion better left for another day.

From Terry Flanagan:

The answer to 73 across in the Sunday NY Times of 4/28/02 is (I think) purlieu. The clew is "regular hangout".  If it's correct I assume it is somehow related to milieu.

You'd think!  But purlieu is unrelated to milieu, lieutenant and in lieu of

A purlieu is, as you say, one's habitual "stamping ground" or "haunt". The word arose as an  "etymologized" form of purlew.  In other words, some medieval scribe saw this word and assumed a derivation from lieu (Old French, "place") and "corrected" the spelling.

To find the original meaning of purlew we have to go back to the 13th century Forest Laws imposed by the Norman rulers on their English subjects.  In some cases these laws extended beyond the forested areas into adjacent tracts of land.  These tracts were called, in the  Anglo-French of legal documents, puralé or puralea, from the Old French pouraler (literally "for to go"), a translation of the Latin perambulare, "to walk through".  In common speech this became purley or purlew.

Perambulare is also the origin of perambulate, perambulation and perambulator (= American "baby carriage") which became shortened to pram.  Many English villages had annual ceremonies of perambulation in which the inhabitants of a parish (or forest, manor or whatever) walked around its boundaries in order to commit them to memory. Some parishes, as an additional aide memoire, employed a technique known as beating the bounds which required a group of young boys and a supply of willow wands.  At each of the local landmarks, the villagers would give one of the boys a generous thrashing, thus ensuring that he would have good reason to remember that specific landmark well into his dotage.

We consider this to be medieval technology at its finest but, despite the demonstrable efficacy of this technique, it was eventually abandoned. [We blame bleeding-heart, tax-and-spend liberals - M&M.]  The modern bound-beatings are wishy-washy, namby-pamby rituals in which the boys beat the landmarks with sticks.  Where is their sense of tradition?  

From Elliot:

My understanding is that dogsbody is similar to factotum or a jack-of-all-trades hired for just such a purpose.  Whenever I use it people think I'm invariably trying to insult them when I'm just trying to show off by using an archaic term.

Originally sailors' slang, dogsbody meant "dried peas boiled in a cloth", "sea biscuits soaked in water and sugar", or some other unpalatable mess.  [But why? - M&M]  This usage began sometime before 1818 but by the early 1900s, the term was also applied, somewhat sarcastically, to midshipmen and low-ranking officers within the British Royal Navy.

It was probably World War I which spread dogsbody to the other armed services. In a letter dated 1922, T. E. Lawrence, now a peacetime staff officer and no longer "Lawrence of Arabia", wrote about becoming "used to being a dog’s body".  By mid-century the word had escaped its military confines, passing into general usage.

As now understood, it means a junior employee with multiple, ill-defined duties, especially if overworked.  For some reason, the image of an assistant stage manager struggling to cope with a touring opera company comes to mind.

You didn't tell us exactly how you applied the term dogsbody to your co-workers. Hmm... Just to be on the safe side, perhaps you should buy flowers or doughnuts on your way to work.


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