Q: In an expression like “He has bottom,” what does “bottom” mean and where does it come from?
A: Your question about “bottom” reminds us of a 2012 post we wrote on “side.” Both are terms, mainly in British usage, for personal qualities or character traits, one positive and the other negative. Someone with “side” is arrogant or stuck-up, while someone with “bottom” has courage and strength of character.
This use of “bottom” was first recorded in the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “physical resources, stamina, staying power; substance, strength of character, dependability.” The OED says the usage is “now colloquial and somewhat archaic.”
It’s also labeled “archaic” in the British dictionary Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries online), which describes this sense of “bottom” as a “mass noun” meaning “stamina or strength of character.” The example given: “whatever his faults, he possesses that old-fashioned quality—bottom.”
The term is found in only a couple of standard American dictionaries. Webster’s New World defines it as “endurance, stamina,” and Merriam-Webster Unabridged says it means “vigorous physical qualities combined with stamina,” “capacity to endure strain,” or “spirit.” The Unabridged adds that the term is “used especially of horses and dogs,” as in “a breed of dogs outstanding for bottom.”
Our guess is that in the US the word is more common in regional than in general usage. The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples dating from 1843 to 1968 in the West, the Great Plains, and the South, with the term applied to people as well as horses and dogs.
In Britain, where this sense of “bottom” originated, the usage first appeared in print as a sporting term in boxing, according to OED citations.
The dictionary’s earliest example is from Capt. John Godfrey’s A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defence (1747), a book on swordplay that also includes observations on boxing and on famous boxers of the day. We’ll expand the OED citation to give more of the context:
“I have mentioned Strength and Art as the two Ingredients of a Boxer. But there is another, which is vastly necessary; that is, what we call a Bottom. We need not explain what it is as being a Term well understood. There are two things required to make this Bottom, that is, Wind and Spirit, or Heart, or wherever you can fix the Residence of Courage.”
The author mentions “bottom” in many such passages, as in these remarks about a fighter known as George (“The Barber”) Taylor: “if he had a true English Bottom (the best fitting Epithet for a Man of Spirit), he would carry all before him,” and “if he were unquestionable in his Bottom, he would be a Match for any Man.”
Godfrey also uses the word as an adjective, as when he describes two famous fighters as “the best Bottom Men of the modern Boxers.”
It’s interesting that Godfrey says the term was already “well understood” when he wrote his book. So it was certainly around earlier in speech, perhaps in relation to sports involving horses or dogs. Subsequent published examples in the OED refer mostly to horses and dogs, but also to people. Here are a few examples, extending into our own time:
“Although the savages held out and, as the phrase is, had better bottoms, yet, for a spurt, the Englishmen were more nimble and speedy” (a reference to the endurance of Native Americans, from Oliver Goldsmith’s An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, 1774).
“They … have their manes and tails cropped … under the supposition that it adds to their strength and bottom” (from a description of Barbary horses in the Penny Cyclopaedia, 1835).
“William Whitelaw … and Geoffrey Howe … had simply not had the bottom to take on Edward Heath. She [Margaret Thatcher] had had that bottom” (the Independent, Nov. 30, 1989).
“Both sides envisioned in their horses the qualities that had made their regions distinct—the brilliance of untamed southern speed, the resolve of northern ‘bottom,’ or stamina” (John Eisenberg’s The Great Match Race: When North Met South in America’s First Sports Spectacle, 2006).
The term isn’t common today, in either British or American English. We suspect that Eisenberg used it in The Great Match Race (and in quotation marks) because he was writing about a contest that took place in 1823, when the usage was familiar. And we suspect that a reference to Margaret Thatcher’s “bottom” would evoke quite a different image today.
As you might think, “bottom” is among the oldest words in the language. Like its distant relative “deep,” it’s existed in writing since early Old English and was inherited from Germanic sources but goes back to prehistoric Proto-Indo-European.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the ancient ancestors of “bottom” and “deep” were bhudh– and dheub-, “which already in Indo-European were doublets by inversion, referring to ‘bottom,’ ‘foundation,’ ‘depths.’ ” (Doublets are etymological twins, in this case with the consonant sounds inverted.)
“Bottom” in its original sense—the lowest part of something—first appeared in writing in a Latin-English manuscript known as the Third Cleopatra Glossary, which scholars say originated in the 700s. It was then spelled botm, which remained the usual spelling throughout the Old English period, the OED says.
Over the centuries it has had a great many meanings, which generally fall into three broard categories:
(1) The lowest part of something, whether a physical thing, a place, or a list or ranking or some kind. These uses of the word gave us the figurative phrase “rock bottom” (1866), as well as the buttocks sense of “bottom” (circa 1550). The OED says that last one is now considered “a euphemistic alternative to words such as arse, bum, butt, and numerous synonyms.”
(2) The deepest or most inner part of something, literally or figuratively. The expression “the bottom of one’s heart” (early 1400s) comes from these senses of the word, as do usages like “the bottom of the garden” (1715), referring to the furthest point.
(3) An underlying support, foundation, or base, physical or metaphorical. The use of “bottom” that we’re discussing here, meaning stamina, pluck, endurance, and so on (1747), falls within this category.
Another meaning of “bottom” that we should mention also falls into the third category. It’s a sense defined in the OED as “the fundamental character, essence, or reality.”
This meaning of the word has given us such expressions as “to get to the bottom of” (to investigate fully or find the truth of, 1683); “at bottom” (basically, late 1600s); and “to be at the bottom of” (to be the hidden source or instigator, usually referring to something you’d rather not be blamed for, 1550).