The Grammarphobia Blog

Psst! Naked pictures

Q: The term “naked picture” is often used by talking heads to describe a photograph of someone who’s naked. How can a picture be naked unless it’s missing a cover, frame, or protective coating?

A: I suppose you’re right on a very literal level. But phrases like “naked postcard,” “naked picture,” “naked painting,” and so on are pretty common, and there’s usually no chance that anyone will misunderstand them.

Think of it this way. In the phrase “dirty photo,” no one thinks the photographic print is soiled. What’s dirty is what’s depicted IN the photo.

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references going back to 1503 for a similar expression, “naked bed,” meaning a bed where one sleeps naked.

A good example of this is in a Sept. 7,1666, entry from The Diary of Samuel Pepys: “So here I went the first time into a naked bed, only my drawers on; and did sleep pretty well.”

Interestingly, the OED also has references going back to Anglo-Saxon days for “naked” used as a noun meaning a naked person or a nude in a work of art.

The dictionary says these usages are now rare, but it includes a relatively recent citation from Kenneth Rexroth’s poem The Dragon and the Unicorn (1952): “Too many nakeds for a chapel.”

It doesn’t seem to me that much of a stretch to speak of “naked pictures” as well as “nakeds” in a chapel – or on a street corner.

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