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Since buttons aren't particularly cute (IMO), where did this common phrase come from? I know it's old; I've seen it in 19th century literature.

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Buttons aren't particularly cute in your opinion. Due to their shape & size many people would think of buttons as cute and hence the phrase is justified.. –  Invoker May 18 at 16:33
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@Invoker, the link in teratogen's answer suggests that the "button" in the phrase was not a shirt button, but a flower bud. –  Jolenealaska May 18 at 16:37
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What did you think of when asking? Flower bud or shirt one? In my opinion both can be deemed as cute. –  Invoker May 18 at 16:42
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@Invoker I suspected that the phrase stemmed from another meaning of "button", but I didn't know what that meaning would be. –  Jolenealaska May 18 at 16:45
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2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

While I can't find any scholarly answers, most answers I'm finding say that 'button' refers to something pretty or attractive in a dainty way. After all, you're using the word 'cute' so you wouldn't be using it to describe a large, muscular man. This phrase would be best suited for a small child or flower.

CUTE AS A BUTTON - "cute, charming, attractive, almost always with the connotation of being small, 1868 (from the original 1731 English meaning of 'acute' or clever). Cute as a bug's ear, 1930; cute as a bug in a rug, 1942; cute as a button, 1946. Cute and keen were two of the most overused slang words of the late 1920s and 1930s." From "Listening to America" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1992.)

Flexner may have an idea about the word "cute," but he provides no guidance on the question of how a button can be cute. The key to the issue is that it is not the button on a shirt that is meant here, but a flower bud seen in the popular name of small flowers, such as bachelor's button (q.v. "button" (n) in the OED, meanings 2 and 3).

The British version is "bright as a button". This makes sense if you think of a polished brass button. The phrase is really only ever used of small people - you'd say that a child, or maybe a small dog, was as bright as a button, but you'd never say it of a six-foot man. So the image is of a small sparky thing.

http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/41/messages/652.html

You can read more here.

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I can think of three explanations, not necessarily mutually exclusive:

  1. Cute originally meant smart or clever. The button, as a fastening invention, is quite ingenious. As cute came to mean "attractive" or "pretty", the phrase moved in meaning as well.

  2. Buttons were small delicate and elegantly decorated, comparable to (say) a cute doll.

  3. It's deliberately a nonsense phrase, as with some postulated origins for "dead as a doornail". I imagine it being invented by the same sort of people who came up with "madder than a wet hen", "two days older than dirt" and the like, but perhaps that's just idle fantasy.

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Do you have any knowledge or evidence to back these up, or are they entirely speculations? –  jwpat7 May 18 at 19:27
    
What makes you think that mad as a wet hen doesn't have the obvious origin in that barnyard fowl don't like water? –  Oldcat May 19 at 20:39
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