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Why We Say 'Buck Naked' and Other Naked Idioms

We naked apes have been making up sayings with the word "naked" for a long time.

By
Samantha Enslen, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #839
The Quick And Dirty

“Naked” is one of the oldest words in the English language. There are many phrases related to it, from “the naked truth” to being “buck naked.” “Naked” and the similar term “nude” technically mean the same thing, but “nude” has a positive connotation, while “naked” suggests vulnerability. 

We’re going to tell you the naked truth about idioms that use the word “naked.”

“Naked” means not wearing any clothes, and it’s a really old word. We find it in Old English, where it was spelled N-A-C-O-D or N-A-K-E-T. It’s related to the ancient Sanskrit word “nagna” and the classical Latin word “nūdus.”

Naked or nude?

“Nūdus,” of course, led to today's word “nude.” “Naked” and “nude” both mean the same thing, but their connotations are very different. 

Being “nude” has a positive spin. People go to “nude beaches” by choice, for the freedom of walking around in a world with no clothes! Artists study nude models so they can better express the beauty of the human form. Their creations are called “nudes.”

In contrast, “naked” has a sense of vulnerability — almost like your clothes have been stripped away, and you're exposed to the world. Haven’t we all had dreams or nightmares where that happens?

Because of this sense of being stripped bare, many idioms with the word “naked” have that same meaning. 

A naked flame and the naked truth

For example, a “naked flame” is one that’s completely unprotected. Think of a candle that could easily tip over and catch your curtains on fire.

The “naked truth” refers to plain, brutal facts, free of any softening. The idea was known in Latin as “nuda veritas.” It appeared in the work of the Roman poet Horace in his “Odes,” written in the first century BC. 

The idea of the “naked truth” is also tied to several fables that tell of two figures, Truth and Falsehood, bathing in a stream. In the story, after washing off, Falsehood steps out of the water — presumably dries off — and puts on Truth’s clothes. Truth, being an honorable woman, refuses to take Falsehood’s clothes. Instead, she walks off proudly naked.  

Seeing with the naked nye

Another expression is to “see with the naked eye.” That means you’re not using a tool like a microscope or telescope to enhance your vision. 

You could say that a comet is too far away to be seen with the naked eye, for example. Or that those little bugs that live in your eyebrows — they really do, check Google if you don’t believe me — they are too tiny to be seen by the naked eye. (Thank goodness – I really don’t want to see those bugs.)

Naked as naybirds and npes

There’s also the odd expression of being “naked as a jaybird” or “naked as a nuthatch.” We don’t know where those phrases came from! Neither bird is the kind that we might strip of its feathers like we would a chicken we were preparing to cook. And even if you tried, a blue jay weighs only 2 or 3 ounces; a nuthatch, less than an ounce. The meal would hardly be worth the effort!

There’s also the term “naked ape,” meaning a human being. This expression was coined by zoologist Desmond Morris in 1967. His book “The Naked Ape” was a landmark study of human behavior and evolution. His main idea was that although we’re not covered with hair, we’re basically still a type of ape, and a lot of our behavior can be understood accordingly. 

Sounds like Morris was dropping some naked truth on the public.

Buck naked or butt naked?

Finally, let’s address a question we’re often asked: Do you say someone is “buck naked” or “butt naked”? 

The first way is correct, but “butt naked” kind of makes sense too! It’s an example of an eggcorn, in which people replace the right word with a different word that sounds the same and also makes logical sense. 

The phrase “buck naked” has an uncertain origin. It was first used in the early 1900s, and may have come about because human skin somewhat resembles the smooth skin of a buck, a male deer. The phrase “in the buff,” which also means “naked,” may have the same origin, hinting at the similarity between our skin and “buff leather”; that is, leather made from buffalo hides.

That’s our roundup of naked idioms. Hope you have a great day, and your night is free of any dreams in which you are unexpectedly naked in public. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Sources

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. "Buck naked"; "buff"; "naked" (subscription required, accessed July 30, 2021).

Ammer, Christine. "Naked as a jaybird." American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 

Ayto, John. "Naked truth." Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Dent, Susie. "Naked ape." Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.

Green, Jonathan. Naked. Green’s Dictionary of Slang, online edition, subscription required, accessed August 30, 2018

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.