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The phrase buck naked is well known and means "completely naked". It is synonymous to butt naked and stark naked, both self-explanatory. However, there are a few confusing aspects to the etymology of buck naked.

My research brought me across a few plausible explanations:

  1. The word "buck" comes from buckskin, which is a deer/horse like animal.

  2. A slang used by Americans against natives(Indians) for young males who often fought or hunted without clothing.

  3. It is a Bowlderization of "butt naked" so that it can be used in public without causing unnecessary discomfort. An euphemism of some sort.

All three explanations seemed equally possible to me and I failed to unearth an authoritative source to confirm any of them.

It would also be interesting to know if the phrase is more popular in some parts of the world than others.

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@Nick you should visit ELU more often. –  RegDwigнt Jan 22 '13 at 13:28
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@Nick "butt naked" is found either as an eggcorn or deliberate increase in vulgarity, but "buck naked" is well-attested in England. –  Jon Hanna Jan 22 '13 at 13:30
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@FumbleFingers while the matter of the phrase's origin was included as a point that "would be of interest" in that question, it was neither the crux of that question, nor addressed by the answers. –  Jon Hanna Jan 22 '13 at 15:19
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@Jon: If we allowed every "Which is correct?" question to have a separate "Which came first?" version, that would just be pointless proliferation. I think you should have voted to close this one, and posted your answer against the original. –  FumbleFingers Jan 22 '13 at 17:39
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@FumbleFingers: I notice that the book you linked to does not appear to give any references, or even discussion: it just makes assertion. Given the amount of ignorant assertions around in this area, why should we trust it? –  Colin Fine Jan 9 at 18:21

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The possibility you left out is that, rather than a bowdlerisation of "butt naked," it was an eggcorn of it; however, determining whether such a change was deliberate or accidental would be nigh on impossible.

Of the three, we can argue in favour of the second, though with the people referenced being as much those of African as of American origin.

We find "buck naked" in the 19th Century.

We do not find "butt naked" during that period.

We do not find it any earlier.

We do find "buck" being used to refer to men of African and of American Indian origin.

We do find the lack of clothing in some parts of Africa and America remarked upon. We also find slaves in the American South often working with little clothing. (We also find it overstated, a cartoon of an African might likely feature them as naked even if that would be highly unlikely in the scenario depicted — we're talking about people with some pretty strong racial prejudices here).

As such, we have a group of people being called "bucks" whose nakedness is often remarked upon. This suggests that the likelihood of it being the origin is quite high.

It's far from conclusive though, and you aren't going to get any better unless you hit documents from the period and manage to track it down better yourself.

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Does butt as a shortening of buttocks even go back that far? It sounds 20th century to me. –  Nate Eldredge Jan 22 '13 at 17:15
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@NateEldredge Late Middle English had both butt and buttok. –  Jon Hanna Jan 22 '13 at 23:33
    
I think we can positively rule out "buck naked" being an eggcorn/bowlderization of "butt naked" if we can establish that the former out-dates the later. Do you have any reference on that matter? –  KeyBrd Basher Jan 23 '13 at 12:04
    
@KeyBrdBasher Not necessarily. Butt is considered mildly offensive by some, and since people are generally more reserved in writing than speech, finding buck naked prior to butt naked does not conclusively establish the order they arrived into spoken English. –  Jon Hanna Jan 23 '13 at 12:12
    
@NateEldredge, you have your derivations backwards there: ‘buttock’ is a diminutive of ‘butt’; ‘butt’ isn’t a shortening of ‘buttock’. Oddly (though presumably by chance), ‘buttock’ is attested in writing nearly centuries before ‘butt’. There are cognates from older stages of related Germanic languages, though, that indicate that the word was used even in Old English times, but just happened not to be included in any surviving texts earlier than around 1470. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 9 at 17:33

I remembered reading about this subject a few years ago and I found the source:

The standard expression is “buck naked,” and the contemporary “butt naked” is an error that will get you laughed at in some circles. However, it might be just as well if the new form were to triumph. Originally a “buck” was a dandy, a pretentious, overdressed show-off of man. Condescendingly applied in the US to Native Americans and black slaves, it quickly acquired negative connotations. To the historically aware speaker, “buck naked” conjures up stereotypical images of naked “savages” or—worse—slaves laboring naked on plantations. Consider using the alternative expression “stark naked.”

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From African American oral history as well as scholarly historical research, “buck naked” refers to a young, black male slave, “a buck,” who was naked during a close arm inspection prior to sale. [A popular imagining of this historical practice can be seen in this still from the movie {Mandingo} (1975) starring Ken Norton. http://d1oi7t5trwfj5d.cloudfront.net/5e/2b/cb9b59aa498b8adc716394aad1a3/ken-norton-mandingo.jpg] (Although there were strict norms governing nakedness and decorum among Whites, the same norms did not apply to enslaved persons.) As commodities, slaves were frequently forced to endure invasive inspections (including of the genitals) to assess their health, sexual prowess, and potential fertility, similar to how we inspect cars today or horses were inspected prior to that. After the outlawing of the international importation of slaves in 1807, (forced) reproduction with other slaves or (master and slave) was the primary means of increasing slave stock. (Black women slaves were also similarly evaluated prior to sale and/or for the owners’ sexual amusement and satisfaction.) This type of inspection was considered critical given the cost of investment. For instance, in Texas, in 1850, a prime field hand aged 18–31 would cost an average of $1,200, or $36,515 in 2014 dollars.http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/yps01

Black male slaves were referred to as ‘bucks,’ akin to young deer. [Enslaved Blacks were considered livestock under chattel slavery.] Native American men were also referred to as “bucks,” both because of the association with buck skins and their being thought savage animals whose traditional habitat was the wild.

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Your formatting (or lack thereof) makes this very difficult to read and understand, but this seems like a lot of supported information on slavery without a lot of backing for the two crucial points: That black male slaves were referred to as “bucks” and that “buck naked” comes from their nudity during these inspections. –  Tyler James Young Oct 3 at 20:43
    
It doesn’t reassure me any that the single (and somewhat extraneous) statement for which you provide a source (“in Texas, in 1850, a prime field hand aged 18—31 would cost an average of $1,200”) is not, strictly speaking, supported by the linked text in The Handbook of Texas which provides that figure as the average cost “during the late 1850s” for “prime male field hands aged eighteen to thirty” (emphasis mine). –  Tyler James Young Oct 3 at 20:50

I have no proof whatsoever, but I believe it refers to male black slaves who were often presented nude on the auction block.

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