Q: I’ve long wondered about the use of the American word “butt” to denote the backside. Is it simply a shortened form of “buttock” or something else entirely?
A: Although the use of “butt” in this sense is now chiefly an American usage, it originated in British English—first as an animal’s hindquarters and later as the backside of a man.
So which term for a backside came first, “butt” or “buttock”? Probably “butt,” but like so much about language it’s not certain. Here’s the story.
When this sense of “butt” first appeared in writing in the early 15th century (spelled bott in Middle English), it referred to the hindquarters, especially of an animal, or a piece of meat consisting of the hindquarters, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from a recipe for beef and mutton in a medieval cookbook:
“Take fayre Bef of þe quyschons, & motoun of þe bottes, & kytte in þe maner of Stekys” (“Take fair rumps of beef, and butts of mutton, and cut in the manner of steaks”). From Harleian Ms. 279, dated 1430, in the Harley collection at the British Library.
In the 17th century, the term came to be used colloquially in northwestern England to mean a person’s buttocks or anus, according to the OED. The first Oxford example is from Burlesque Upon Burlesque (1675), by Charles Cotton, a satire based on the dialogues of Lucian, a second-century Assyrian who lived in the Roman Empire and wrote in Greek:
“For to behold those goodly horns, / That py’d beard, which thy face adorns, / That single wagging at thy Butt, / Those Cambrils [hocks], and that cloven foot.” Mercury, a god in Roman mythology, is speaking here to his son Pan, who has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat. Mercury is the equivalent of Hermes in Greek mythology.
The OED’s earliest US example for “butt” used to mean the hindquarters is from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1859), which defines it this way: “The buttocks. The word is used in the West in such phrases as, ‘I fell on my butt,’ ‘He kick’d my butt.’ ”
As for which came first, “butt” or “buttock,” the OED says “buttock” was “apparently formed” by adding the diminutive suffix “-ock” to “butt.”
However, the dictionary points out that “butt” was “first attested later” than “buttock” in the hindquarters sense. In other words, “butt” apparently existed in speech, but not writing, before “buttock” was recorded.
The dictionary defines “buttock” as “either of the two round fleshy masses (comprising the gluteal muscles and surrounding tissues) situated beneath the lower back, that together form the bottom or rump, and support the body’s weight when seated.”
The earliest OED citation for “buttock” is in a description of the fetal position from a medieval treatise on science written around 1300:
“The heles atte buttokes, the kneon in aither eye” (“The heels at the buttocks, the knees in either eye”). From Popular Treatises on Science Written During the Middle Ages, edited by Thomas Wright, 1841.
In Anglo-Saxon days, a much older, similarly spelled word, buttuc, could mean the end of something, a small piece of land, a slope, or a ridge, according to various Old English dictionaries. The -uc ending here was a diminutive, so buttuc apparently referred to a little butt, though butt by itself wasn’t recorded in Old English.
Are the unrecorded Old English word butt and its diminutive buttuc ancestors of the modern words “butt” and “buttock”? Possibly. The OED says the use of buttoc in Anglo-Saxon times “with reference to topographical features, perhaps ‘one of two rounded slopes or banks’ is perhaps implied” by this passage from an Anglo-Saxon land charter:
“Þanon suðriht on ðæne heafodæcer. Of ðam heafdon on ðæne weg. Of ðam wege on ða buttucas. Of ðam buttucon on ðone broc” (“Straight south from the acre at the head of the field. Out of the headland on to the path. Out of the path on to the buttucas. From the buttocon at that brook”). From a deed dated 1023, published in Anglo-Saxon Charters (1968) by Peter Sawyer. The property was in Evesham, a market town in Worcestershire.
However, the OED adds that the passage “is perhaps more likely to show a different formation,” a ridge or raised strip of cultivated land, a usage that’s now regional in the UK.
We should mention here that there are many other “butt” words in modern English. Here are some common ones: an object of ridicule (“the butt of their jokes”); the thicker end (“the butt of a rifle”); an unburnt end (“the butt of a cigar”); to hit or push (“he butted his head against the wall”; to interfere (“they butted in”); to adjoin (“the house butted up against a bowling alley”).
Most of the “butt” words (including the one for a fanny) ultimately come from a prehistoric root reconstructed as bhau- (to strike), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.