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Photo of green flower buds. Confronting bud and buddy by the Oxford Etymologist on the OUP blog

Confronting bud and buddy

In the previous installment (14 June 2023), I mentioned several attempts to explain the origin of bud(dy). See also the comment at the bottom of that post. It may perhaps be useful to remember that monosyllabic words beginning with b, d, g ~ p, t, k and ending in one of those consonants (bed, big, pig, kick, gig, dog, gag, keg, dab, bug, and a host of others) are notoriously obscure from the etymological point of view. Sound imitative? Sound-symbolic? Baby words? Borrowed? Some of them once had an ending (e, i, a), which is of no consequence as regards their origin. Incidentally, bud (on a plant) also poses problems. Known from texts since the Middle English period, it has a Dutch lookalike with t at the end and resembles French bouton, which may be of Germanic origin, but this derivation is far from certain. In one widely-used but rather unreliable dictionary, buddy is said to be “etymologically identical with the adjective buddy ‘full of buds’.” Thus, our correspondent, who had a similar idea, even though she cannot be said to be in good company, is at least not alone. Another complicating factor deserves mention. Such nouns and verbs may be coined, forgotten, and coined again in the same form. After all, it is not too hard to come up with words like bob, gab, pad, and so forth.   

Buddy poses familiar problems. It may or may not be a native word. Everybody is agreed that we are dealing with an Americanism. It appeared in texts around the year 1800, which excludes the idea of its derivation from bud “part of a plant.” Strange things sometimes happen. Guy, one the most common American words, goes back to a proper name and the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. The plot happened in England, but guy ousted or limited the use of pal, fellow, and their likes in American English. Last week, I mentioned Skeat’s derivation of buddy from booty-fellow and expressed my doubts on this score. Despite my admiration of everything Walter W. Skeat did, I keep thinking that in this case he was wrong.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: two brothers, two buddies.
(Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

What follows depends largely on Jeremy Bergerson’s article in the Dutch periodical Leuvense Bijdragen (91, 2002, 63-71). Dutch has the dialectal word boetje “brother.” It has been recorded in numerous variants, and, according to a reasonable suggestion, it is an affectionate form of the baby word boe “brother.” In recent English scholarship, the idea that buddy goes back to brother has gained the upper hand. The direction seems to be correct, but the way may have been less straight than etymologists would like it. The problem is the loss of r after b. In languages in which r is a trill (or a roll: both terms mean the same), for instance, Spanish, Italian, and Russian (to cite a few examples), r is usually the hardest sound to master. Children tend to substitute l for it. But English r is NOT a trill, and the well-known substitution for it is w. Many of us have heard children say: “I am hungwy.” This is also a much-ridiculed pseudo-aristocratic affectation. As a general rule, an English-speaking baby would probably not say buddy for brother.

We may try to ask for help abroad. Dutch bout, beut, boetje, and budde, among many other similar forms, seem to go back to the baby word boe (pronounced with a vowel like English oo in boo). The story is partly reminiscent of the history of English boy. Boy, too, may be a derivative of a baby word for “little brother,” and the Old English name Boia perhaps contains the “root” in its pristine form. Dutch Boio, Boiga, Boga, and even Scandinavian Bo may once have meant “little brother.” (More details on this score can be found in my and J. Lawrence Mitchell’s An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction, pp. 15-16). If this reconstruction is correct, the many words cited above do go back to “brother,” but not to the word brother. The baby etymon contained no r. This suggestion runs counter to what we find in some of our most respectable sources.

They are happy, rather than hungwy.
(Via Wallpaper Flare, public domain)

Unexpected light on the origin of buddy comes from the English word Boots. The word is known from such compounds as slyboots and lazyboots, but most will probably remember Boots “a name for the servant in hotels who cleans the boots.” The OED cites numerous examples. Apparently, Boots emerged with the meaning “servant; a person at the lowest level of the hierarchy” rather than “shoeshine boy.” This is evidenced by such senses as “the youngest officer in a regiment” and others. The hotel Boots did clean boots and put them outside the gentleman’s door, but this is not why he received his name. George Webbe Dasent used the word Boots for rendering Norwegian Askepott ~ Askeladden (this is what the despised third son in fairytales, “male Cinderella,” is called). If Dasent had associated Askepott only or mainly with the shoe shiner, he would hardly have used the word in such a context. An ingenious correspondent to Notes and Queries once suggested that Puss in Boots might be a misnomer, because allegedly, Puss and Boots, that is, Puss as Servant was meant. But the English title is a translation from French, where Chat botté is unambiguous.

Askeladden in full glory.
(Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Bergerson suggested that Boots is a borrowing of Dutch boet, a childish word for “brother.” We find Dutch boet “a recent recruit in the Indian Army” and a few other words that fit our story well. If boet (pronounced approximately like English boot) was indeed borrowed into English with the meaning “a person of inferior rank,” the rest is plain sailing. The ending s is added freely to English words. I, for example, have dealt with two guineapigs: Cuddles and Sniffers. In Dickens’s Dombey and Son, the servant who wheeled Mrs Skewton around had the name Withers. Dobbin of ours, a most important character in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, was called Figs, because his father sold all kinds of groceries. And don’t we occasionally live in digs and have things for keeps?

Dutch words in English are numerous (very numerous indeed). If Boots is one of them, perhaps so is buddy from boetje. The voicing of t between vowels is no problem. Buddy is an American coinage, and in American English, intervocalic t is voiced, so that seated and seeded, Plato and playdough, sweetish and Swedish, futile and feudal (to mention just a few examples), are homophones pairwise. With time, the vowel in boetje acquired, as expected, the value of u in but, and butty ~ buddy was born. Speakers quite correctly interpreted the last sound as a diminutive suffix and produced bud from buddy by back formation. The word has just the expressive value one needs: compare studs “a great virile guy,” as in Studs Lonigan byJames T. Farrell.

Have we solved the riddle? No, the etymology of buddy and Boots will probably remain “debatable” (unless it suddenly gains universal recognition—a rare case in etymological studies), but perhaps we have made a step in the right direction.

Featured image via pxfuel (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    In one of the comments in your previous post, someone suggested that “buddy” may come from “body”. And gave a Scottish example for such connection of peope from the same village.

    I find that very credible! Since when counting “bodies” in a small select group, these become “buddies”! The similar sounding of these words adds to my conviction! With the “o” in “body” sounding like the “u” in “buddy”.

  2. Gary

    “in American English, intervocalic t is voiced, so that seated and seeded, Plato and playdough, sweetish and Swedish, futile and feudal (to mention just a few examples), are homophones pairwise”
    This is why British actors doing American accents sometimes sound strange to me.
    I don’t voice the t when I say Plato, etc. and I don’t think I’m an exception.

  3. Isaiah Laderman

    “Bud” appears frequently in the English Restoration comedy “The Country Wife” by William Wycherly, 1675. For example: “MRS. PINCH. O my dear, dear bud, welcome home! Why dost thou look so fropish? who has nangered thee?”

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