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If somebody asks me to describe the below photo, I would definitely say, "It is a picture of shirtless Putin on a horseback".

The adjective topless is defined by Oxford Online Dictionary:

(Of a woman) having the breasts uncovered: a topless dancer.

And according to Online Etymology Dictionary, topless means:

of women, "bare-breasted," 1966, from top (n.1) + -less.

And I looked up the bold top (n.1) above in the same dictionary and it states:

Few Indo-European languages have a word so generic, which can be used of the upper part or surface of just about anything.

And nothing else to clarify the meaning. However, the headline of The Independent reads:

Chelsea Handler uses topless Vladimir Putin photo to highlight Instagram nudity inequalities

Questions:

  1. Can the adjective topless describe a male? What is the difference between shirtless and topless, then?

  2. What does the noun top mean in topless? What is its etymology? (I can't figure out from Online Etymology Dictionary.)

  3. Are there more apt/suitable words to describe the below picture besides shirtless (or possibly topless)?

enter image description here

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    "Top" is often used to refer to a garment worn over the torso, such as a shirt or blouse. It is more commonly used when referring to women's garments. – Era Dec 18 '15 at 16:26
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    Google Books claims 1230 instances of he was topless, which isn't that far behind the 1920 instances of she was topless. But I'd probably say he was bare-chested (according to Google Books, so would 3970 writers). – FumbleFingers Dec 18 '15 at 16:49
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    This is not one to get your shorts in a knot about, since there are no rigid rules (not even any squishy ones). "Topless", absent any context, suggests to most healthy males a female who is naked from the waist up. But it's sometimes applied to men, and of course it can be applied to a jar of peanut butter as well. "Shirtless" is often used for men (and, yes, in the US), such as "The workmen were shirtless in the heat." "Stripped to the waist" is also used (mainly for men, but occasionally for women). – Hot Licks Dec 18 '15 at 17:14
  • I suspect the reason topless more often refers to women is because they're considered more likely to wear undergarments over their chest, specifically the brasserie, so they might not be effectively nude from the waist up even if they're "Shirtless". Additionally, even when men do wear underwear, it is usually a kind of shirt. Hence shirtless suffices for men, since it does imply that they are nude from the waist up. Technically, I suppose you could be shirtless and wearing a coat but coats usually aren't worn over bear skin. – Tonepoet Dec 19 '15 at 2:49
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Topless was originally used for males. Shirtless is much older. The idea was to indicate that the breast was not covered. I'd use topless only to refer to women, shirtless is used mainly referring to males Ngram:

topless (adj.):

  • of women, "bare-breasted," 1966, from top (n.1) + -less. Earlier it was used of men's bathing suits (1937) and women's (1964). Earliest sense is "without a visible summit; immeasurably high" (1580s).

shirtless (adj.)

  • c. 1600, from shirt + -less.
  • Earliest sense as in "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, / And burned the topless towers of Ilium?" – Brian Donovan Dec 18 '15 at 16:41
  • I guess that is an example. – user66974 Dec 18 '15 at 16:42
  • OED cites example of sartorial sense applied to males in 1969: "Observer 7 Dec. 25/3 Topless boys with shoulder-length hair pause as they cycle past you: ‘Wanna buy some acid?’" – Brian Donovan Dec 18 '15 at 16:43
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    I have rarely, if ever, heard the term shirtless in the US, but it would be understood. The phrase "without a shirt" would be used colloquially for men. Using the word topless for a man might seen as facetious depending on the context. As above, topless is readily used for women. Funny aside: the last time I was in New Orleans, there was a sign that read Topless Men, Bottomless Girls. I didn't go in. – Stu W Dec 18 '15 at 16:47

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