Q: I am researching a book on le vice anglais and have become interested in when the word “bottom” came to mean the buttocks. Some dictionaries say the late 18th century, but an anecdote in Boswell’s Life of Johnson implies the word had that meaning by the 1780s.
A: Yes, that anecdote indicates that “bottom” had the sense of buttocks in the 18th century, which isn’t surprising since it had been used that way since the 16th century.
The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “bottom” meaning “the buttocks, the posterior; (also) the anus” is from a 16th-century margin note in The Prose Brut Chronicle of England, a Middle English manuscript from the first half of the 15th century.
The OED says the term is written two ways in the manuscript (Harley 4827 at the British Library). It’s “erses” (arses) in the main text and “botumes” (bottoms) in this later marginal comment:
“Englishmen fyrst chaunghed there Aparell contrary to the old orders and women folowed wt foxe tayles to hyde there botumes.” The dictionary estimates the date of the marginal note with “botumes” at around 1550.
The next Oxford citation for “bottom” used in the buttocks sense is from a satirical poem about Scottish Presbyterians: “Like aples in the Lake of Sodom, / Like beautie clapped in the bodom” (Mock Poem, or, Whiggs Supplication, a manuscript copy written sometime before 1680, by the Scottish satirist Samuel Colvil).
The original sense of “bottom” as the lower part of something dates back to Anglo-Saxon days. The first OED citation is from a Latin-Old English glossary: “Fundum, fætes botm” (Cleopatra Glossaries, Cotton Cleopatra A. III, a 10th-century manuscript at the British Library). Fundum is Latin for “bottom”; “fætes botm” is Old English for “bottom of a cup.”
Finally, we should let our readers share that April 20, 1781, anecdote you mentioned from The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791). In the biography, James Boswell describes the drawing-room tittering that results when Johnson refers to a woman’s sensible character by saying, “the woman had a bottom of good sense.” Here’s Boswell on Johnson’s reaction:
His pride could not bear that any expression of his should excite ridicule, when he did not intend it; he therefore resolved to assume and exercise despotick power, glanced sternly around, and called out in a strong tone, ‘Where’s the merriment?’ Then collecting himself, and looking aweful, to make us feel how he could impose restraint, and as it were searching his mind for a still more ludicrous word, he slowly pronounced, ‘I say the woman was fundamentally sensible;’ as if he had said, hear this now, and laugh if you dare. We all sat composed as at a funeral.