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From my knowledge of the definition is that one has to be completely uncovered to use those two terms.

However I have seen it being used in shows (and maybe books) where a half-covered person is referred to as naked/nude, e.g. only topless or pantsless.

Is this an erroneous colloquial English usage whose proliferation is improper, or is this actually permissible as proper English?

If it is proper English now, then was there ever a time when it wasn't, since proper language is fluid with the times)?

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    It depends on which half is covered. – Hot Licks Jan 5 at 23:28
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    @HotLicks The front half. – tchrist Jan 5 at 23:39
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    @tchrist - I think you got that bass-ackwards. – Hot Licks Jan 5 at 23:40
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    @HotLicks Fine, have it your way: the right half then, with a demi-tux. – tchrist Jan 5 at 23:50
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    I have seen the use you mention ("I saw a naked man" when they are wearing pants but no shirt). That always sounded strange to me, but maybe there is an 'official' use for what I would call 'half-naked'. What did a dictionary say? – Mitch Jan 6 at 2:59
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A combustion process constitutes a 'naked flame' so long as the relevant part[s] is[are] exposed to the general environment. The same is true in the case of a naked or nude human being. The entire surface of the flame need not be exposed, any part is sufficient.

If we were to describe a spill of boiling water, it would be perfectly reasonable and correct to say 'it splashed onto naked skin' without implying that he was in fact in an entirely naked state, that some portion of the contacted surface is skin is enough.

It seems to follow that what constitutes naked in any given scenario is not laid out in any quantitative fashion. If you want specificity perhaps we need a nakedness metric, other than ergs of discomfiture.

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    This is the start of a good answer, but it would be a lot better with citations. – tchrist Jan 5 at 23:51
  • proceeds to trawl through search results for 'totally naked'..not. – Giu Piete Jan 6 at 0:23
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    No, I mean go to a proper dictionary (preferably an historical one) and show us what it has to say about each of those two words. There’s also more meat just begging to be exposed here in the partially covered arena. – tchrist Jan 6 at 0:27
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In short, yes, that is my first impression that 'naked' and 'nude' are entirely unclothed. But it is not so clear cut as all that.

First, naked.

If you look at dictionary entries (OED is the best, but a reasonable view can be cobbled from many other online dictionaries, 'naked' ('nude' we'll get to in a bit) has multiple related meanings. The primary meaning, that is the one that is least metaphorical, seems to be not covered by any clothing at all. When modifying a body part, eg 'naked torso' it is only referring to that part. When referring to a person, this leads one to believe that the person is entirely unclothed (some dictionaries say 'not wearing any clothes', others '(of a person or part of the body) without clothes.'). If one were to say 'That man is naked' and you discover upon peaking through ones fingers that he is wearing nothing but a loin cloth, you might very well be indignant, take away your hand from your eyes and wonder what the big deal is.

But in former more embarrassed times, 'naked' used of en entire person, really could be used for only being partially exposed or only in undergarments. This usage is a bit dated (even obsolete) but is legitimate.

Also, there's always room for metaphor and hyperbole and context. A naked Amazonian dweller could be one whose only garment, a leather waist string slipped off his penis, but a naked Inuit in the frozen Canadian tundra might well be one who is only missing a hat.

So saying 'that person is naked' for someone who is not entirely unclothed sounds a bit Victorian. Surprising to our modern ears. But still legitimate. But still old-fashioned.

Since we're on the subject, I can't let this go without mentioning the somewhat relevant quip by Lewis Grizzard about the subtle differences in word meanings. Note that this depends on the subtle difference in formal and informal pronunciation in the Southern US.

There's a big difference between the words, ‘naked’ and ‘nekkid.’ ‘Naked’ means you don't have any clothes on. ‘Nekkid’ means you don't have any clothes on - and you're up to something.


As to 'nude', while often interchangeable with 'naked', there are no exact synonyms. Sure, 'naked' and 'nude' are pretty close, but dictionary definitions aren't the entirety of a word's usage. You don't visit a museum to view naked portraiture; that sounds like the paintings have no frames. Real estate lawyers don't deal with nude title to a property; that sounds like a civil rights lawyer's domain. But I suppose if 'Nude Lunch' were the title to Burrough's drug-addled novel, I suppose we'd all still think it's a salacious title for a controversial novel.

But to logical denotation differences, if there were a nude person on the beach, I'd expect that they are clothes-less entirely on purpose, whereas a naked person has the possibility their clothes were stolen and were a little chilly.

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“Naked” means totally unclothed, unless the term is qualified, as in “naked from the waist up”. I don’t think that option exists for “nude”. As you probably know, “nude” (and not naked) is also used as a noun meaning an artistic representation of the unclothed body.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    Some references would be helpful here to demonstrate that it is not just opinion. – Nigel J Mar 14 '18 at 13:38
  • While naked and nude means ‘completely unclothed’, you can say ‘semi-nude’ or ‘partly naked’. – Jelila Mar 14 '18 at 14:14
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The key to nakedness is, I think, coverage of the genitals, and breasts in the case of women. A man wearing a speedo would not be called naked even though he is only, say, 5% clothed, but a man wearing a shirt but no pants might be described as naked, even though he might be, say, 40% clothed, by total area of skin.

For many, then, "naked" means "Visible genitals", and this might extend to breasts in the case of women.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    I think you’d need to say ‘almost naked’ for someone wearing only a shirt. Naked and nude really mean ‘bare’. – Jelila Mar 14 '18 at 14:16

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