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Coal miners "butt to butt". "The company we keep, part two: buddy" by the Oxford Etymologist on the OUP blog

The company we keep, part two: bud(dy)

I am picking up where I left off two weeks ago. Since there have been no comments or letters connected with part one, I will, as promised, tackle the convoluted history of bud. The Internet is awash in suggestions about the origin of this universally known word. Some such suggestions are reasonable, even clever; others fanciful (for instance, bud has been derived by some from Pashto, from Spanish, and even from the names Buddha and Budweiser!). Of course, we now have the opinion of the OED online, and yet I may add something to the ongoing discussion—no revolutionary hypothesis: rather a glance at the state of the art. Predictably, bud ~ buddy can also be found in the first volume of the original OED, but its editor James A. H. Murray was reticent on the word’s etymology. Today’s editors have much more to say about the history of bud; yet the sought-for origin remains disputable and will probably remain such.

Though the first volume of the OED appeared in 1896, people kept returning to the history of bud, and some of their hypotheses deserve attention. Perhaps the most important part of the tale is whether bud ~ buddy has anything to do with the word butty “comrade.” Here are some quotations from the letters sent to the biweekly Notes and Queries (my constant and inexhaustible source of inspiration). “What is the origin of the word butty, gamekeeper’s slang for “comrade”? The dog was took away home to granny by my butty” (Richard Jefferies, ‘The Amateur Poacher,’ 1896, p. 117”). The editor answered:

“The origin is unknown. The ‘H.E.D.’ [that is, Historical English Dictionary, the original name of the OED; even Murray could not remember when HED became OED!] says that it is a possible corruption of booty. The word is in general use in England. See ‘English Dialect Dictionary’ [by Joseph Wright].”

Volumes 1 to 6 of A New English Dictionary. The beginning of the HED/OED.
The beginning of the HED/OED

Other contributors also cited butty from the regions where they lived, and Walter W. Skeat, ever-ready with a suggestion when it came to etymology, wrote:

I would suggest that butty, comrade, is a mere abbreviation of booty-fellow, one who shares in booty; hence a comrade. The full form occurs in Palsgrave [an early sixteenth-century lexicographer] and is duly explained in the “H.E.D.”, s. v. [sub voce “under the word”] “Booty,” §5.

Since that time the derivation of butty from booty-fellow has been repeated more than once. Other contributors to Notes and Queries mentioned butty collier “a man who contracts with the proprietor of a coalpit to get and raise coal to the bank at so much per ton.” In that context, butty was also connected with boot. Additionally, “in ironworks, where two men frequently manage a forge, one superintendent by day and the other by night, each often describes the other as his butty.” In the same region, “a man and a woman living together irregularly sometimes describe each other as his or her butty, and other people would so describe their relations” (1901). “In Warwickshire [the West Midlands] sweethearts who keep company describe their association as buttying with each other.” Bud “husband” has been used for centuries, but of course no phonetic legerdemain can produce this wordfrom husband. Finally, in Scotland, buddy, buddie, and butty have been long since used as a pet designation for a little child.

Two lovers kiss. In some regions, this activity is called buttying.
In some regions, this activity is called buttying.
(Via Pexels, public domain)

Judging by the meaning of the words mentioned above, it seems that buddy and butty have rather little to do with booty, a French word of Germanic origin. Booty-fellow is close but seems to have little to do with buddy as we know it. Below, I will quote part of a letter from the journal American Speech 4, 1929, p. 389. Though the author’s suggestion looks like an example of folk etymology, bud is such a controversial word that even dubious remarks have some value.

The Standard Dictionary [that is, Funk and Wagnalls] gives butty as a variant of buddy. I raise the query whether precedence should not be the other way. When I was a boy in the Pennsylvania coalfields, one of the commonest words in the miners’ speech [again mining, as in England!] was butty, or buttie, as I have always preferred to spell it, meaning work-fellow. In the cramped, underground and honey-combs where bituminous coal is dug, the man with a pick and the man with the shovel are literally butties, working all day long buttock to buttock, or in the vulgar but comradely abbreviation, butt to butt. The word was used generally in a technical sense, without any endearing connotation of spiritual nearness. But the boys of the community thirty years ago adopted the word for the idea which later at school they were to express by chum, a word which I confess always sounds emasculated and utterly lacking the vulgar warmth of buttie (!).

The author begins his letter by saying that buddy “is by origin a childish corruption of brother, with a familiar form ‘bud.’ … it is incontrovertible that bud and buddy are diminutives of brother…”.

The “emasculated” chum was discussed briefly and inconclusively in the previous blog post, and I will not comment on the author’s use of the word incontrovertible. I have more than once expressed my objections to terms like certainly, undoubtedly, obviously, and so forth. (Very few things in etymology are incontrovertible.) I am only a bit confused about the order of events. If buddy is from brother, how can it a variant of butty? Here, I’ll also mention the enigmatic sixteenth-century adjective baddy of unclear meaning, but, apparently, with some negative connotations. This word deserves attention, because Murray devoted a long letter to “the queer phrase” paddy persons in Notes and Queries 9/XII, 1903, 87-88, and nothing that great man wrote should fall through the cracks. It turned out that paddy persons is a misreading: the correct 1585 phrase is baddy persons, and I wondered whether baddy has anything to do with buddy. My question remains unanswered, but the syntax of the quotation is characteristic, and I would like to quote that phrase as a postscript to my blog post.

A book and a lit candle in the dark. The mood of the stories are gloomy.
The mood of the stories are gloomy.
(Via Pexels, public domain)

Here is this phrase: “I doubt [= fear] not that the flower of the pressed English bandes are gone, and that the remnant supplied with such baddy persons as commonly, in voluntary procurements, men are glad to accept.” Baddy will, unfortunately, remain a minor riddle, but another thing should not be overlooked: “The flower of such band(es) are gone.” The subject is of course flower, and the verb should have been is. Yet the writer made the verb agree with the noun closest to it (bands). As is well-known, colonial languages are conservative. American English is no exception. The Revised Version of the Bible has: “Our Father which art in heaven.” And I sometimes hear statements like: “That’s the guy which I told you about.” But this usage is relatively rare. By contrast, the syntax of the phrase quoted above is ineradicable: students’ papers teem with it. I have once quoted my favorite example from an undergraduate’s essay: “The mood of the tales are gloomy.” This usage, well-known to the historians of English syntax, is still rather common in Ireland and in other “colonial” varieties of English. It would be interesting to heart what our readers know about it.

Next week, I’ll finish my discussion of buddy and say what little I think I know about its origin. Nothing in my suggestion will be original or incontrovertible.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Christopher WILSON

    For interest, the inhabitants of Paisley (Scotland) are called buddies. It is claimed here:
    that this comes from the local pronounciation of “bodies” which in old Scottish usage means someone living in a town.

  2. Maggie Catambay

    Without any research on my part, I always thought “Buddy” was related to the “bud” of flower bud.

    I am looking forward to your continuation of your discussion on “bud”!

  3. John Kozak

    I’m from Warwickshire (65 y.o.) and have never heard that usage.

    The only person I know who uses “butt” in the sense you’re discussing is from a South Wales mining community; his etymology was that it referred to someone with whom one shared “butty” (bread).

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