Recent news events in the US have resulted in many headlines about "nude photos of young women" and variations.

Obviously it's the women who are nude, not the photos, so why does this phrasing persist? Is it an idiom, or does it just flow better, or is it some other nuance of usage that I haven't seen in other situations?

Edit: I don't think the linked question is directly on point (though I do see the connection), nor do I think just saying "nude photos are photos of nudes, duh" is an informative answer or comment. Defining nude photos as photos of nudes ignores the fact that the headline refers to photos of women.

  • 49
    It’s no different than pictures of me playing baseball being called my baseball photos or calling the pictures of me swimming my swimming photos.
    – Jim
    Jul 9, 2019 at 17:32
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    A nude photo is nude in the same sense that a beer bottle is beer.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jul 9, 2019 at 18:28
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    For the same reason as there are cat videos Jul 9, 2019 at 18:45
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    See also: vacation photos, yearbook photos Jul 9, 2019 at 21:20
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    @RegDwigнt♦ A beer bottle is a beer bottle regardless of whether it contains beer or not.
    – Spencer
    Jul 9, 2019 at 22:33

9 Answers 9


Collocations modifying photo often don't refer to the photo as a physical object. They instead refer to the subject of the photo, or what's depicted in the image.

To demonstrate this, here are the most common collocations for ____ photo according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English. I have bolded the ones that describe the image (source, subject, or whatever) and italicized the ones that describe a property of the physical photograph. Other results are left unchanged. Numbers describe frequency within the corpus.

  • these (434)
  • family (379)
  • two (316)
  • take (243)
  • color (234)
  • AP (225)
  • those (222)
  • taking (180)
  • digital (168)
  • old (160)
  • scene (147)
  • three (135)
  • nude (129)
  • framed (124)
  • satellite (122)
  • black-and-white (113)
  • took (112)
  • aerial (91)
  • four (87)
  • five (84)
  • snapping (82)
  • wedding (63)

Out of these results, a family photo is understood to be a photo of a family, just as a wedding photo is understood to be a photo of a wedding. Similarly, English has other constructions, like nude photo. The same positioning can also describe provenance (AP photo, satellite photo, aerial photo), quality of photo (black-and-white photo, color photo), physical status (framed photo, digital photo), and so on.

Hearers understand nude photo to refer to what's in the photo because of established usage. Also, the idea of a photo in the "nude" does not make much sense, so the physical interpretation of the object is unlikely. Many media objects have this quality; a ___ book can refer to either the physical object (big book, hardcover book) or to a quality of the text inside (a sad book, a scholarly book). A bit of logic and some arbitrary usage rules determine how people interpret collocations involving media objects.

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    One can easily see how a photo of a family becomes a family photo. One can also see why that happens: the latter formulation is simpler and easier to integrate into longer sentences. That, however, is not analogous to the present case. If photos of nude women followed the same pattern, it would turn into nude-women photos, but that's not what actually happens. The puzzling question is why does the adjective nude move to photos, while the of women construction remains. Photos of tall women would never become tall photos of women.
    – jsw29
    Jul 9, 2019 at 23:42
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    I don't see the equivalent formation necessarily being photo(s) of nude women. It could easily be photo of a nude. Compare to Dali's Study of a Nude. Nude would thus be an attributive noun in nude photo, just like family in family photo or wedding in wedding photo. Jul 10, 2019 at 1:29
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    @jsw29 Nude is a noun - meaning "naked model/person" (this usage has been common for around two centuries, so it's not exactly new). So it's exactly analogous to "family photo". The only confusing part is that nude is also used as an adjective (as the latin original nudus it came from).
    – Luaan
    Jul 10, 2019 at 6:34
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    @Minty In the end, the most important part is - it's not confusing anyone. Nobody mistakenly believes that the photos are bare of their covering, for example (unless it's clear from context). These kinds of shortenings are extremely common. "Cycling photos of his ex" also isn't anything weird, is it? It clearly means "Cycling-depicting photos", and nobody would think the photos cycle. You're right that the "X" in "X photos" behaves more usually as an adjective, but "X" itself can be pretty much anything.
    – Luaan
    Jul 10, 2019 at 8:09
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    The important information I will remember from this answer is that the ratio of nude photos per wedding photos is about 2:1.
    – Evargalo
    Jul 10, 2019 at 16:52

1.1 [attributive] Depicting or performed by naked people.
‘she won't do any nude scenes’

  • 20
    This is just a dictionary definition without any explanation whatsoever. Might just as well post a link in a comment. BTW it's no longer Oxford Dictionaries, it's now called Lexico.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 9, 2019 at 20:16
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    While it's just a definition it does address the question. Jul 10, 2019 at 4:03
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    While in the form of a quote, this answer identifies which definition is relevant and even provides an example.
    – ikegami
    Jul 10, 2019 at 8:11
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    This answer doesn't address the question at all. Simply stating that the word nude is an adjective doesn't say anything about how adjectives work in English, and providing an example is useless when the op himself already did so. Jul 10, 2019 at 16:12
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    @jsw29 The question was: 'I thought nude can only apply to people'. The answer is: 'Well, there's another meaning of nude that does not'. I can't really see what else needs explaining
    – crizzis
    Jul 11, 2019 at 8:21

It’s a way to refer to photos with nude subjects. As you can see from Ngram this expression took off from the ‘60s/70s when pictures portraying nude people, generally women, started to become popular; the same expression was used earlier referring to paintings


(of a photograph, painting, statue, etc.) being or prominently displaying a representation of the nude human figure.


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    Thanks for the Ngram. It reinforces the idea that the phrase has become an idiom.
    – Jim Mack
    Jul 9, 2019 at 19:23
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    @JimMack Enough of all this beating around the bush already. It's time to let the cat out of the bag and spill the beans: in exactly what fashion could "nude photos" EVER be considered any sort of "idiom"?? You're clearly barking up the wrong tree here. The elephant in the room is that timeless refrain, "A noun simply qualified doth never an idiom make." Since it takes two to tango, the ball's in your court now, Roger Federer.
    – tchrist
    Jul 9, 2019 at 21:11
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    @tchrist -would “black photo” mean a photo of black people? There is something idiomatic in “nude photo”, though it is not an idiom.
    – user 66974
    Jul 10, 2019 at 9:57
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    There is utterly no connection to "idiom" here, @JimMack . it's exactly the same as saying an "action movie" or a "family holiday" or a "color photo" or a "pop song". It's an "adjective".
    – Fattie
    Jul 10, 2019 at 10:20
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    @tchrist - the 'idiomatic' part, it seems to me, comes from the notion that nude photos means photos of nudes. But the headline phrase is already photos of women. So the nude seems to have migrated from modifying women to modifying photos. I don't mean to say that nude photos is itself an idiom, only that this usage seems idiomatic.
    – Jim Mack
    Jul 10, 2019 at 12:17

It happens fairly often in English that an adjective is "transferred" from one subject to another, even when it doesn't strictly speaking apply to the latter, provided it is still relevant (in some sense) to the latter. This often begins as a mild figure of speech — see https://www.thoughtco.com/transferred-epithet-1692558 for various examples — but in a great many cases this develops into an independent sense. This happens particularly often when one subject denotes a person and one subject denotes a thing, perhaps because this rarely creates any confusion. Examples include vegetarian (vegetarian people eat vegetarian food), healthy (exercise is healthy because it's likely to make people healthier), happy (a happy ending is one intended to make the audience happy), and unfortunate (you are unfortunate if an unfortunate event befalls you).


Nude photos is a noun phrase that has become idiomatic and manifests in slang such as "nudies" or simply "nudes". The phrase "nude photos of X" does indeed seem like a retro-construction. This phrasing is also more euphemistic or neutral, perhaps, since as you mentioned, technically, it would be "X" who is nude, but "X" is not the grammatical subject (it is instead within the prepositional "of X").

@user240918 and @GEdgar also make good points.

Note Webster:

nude (adj) bare, naked, nude, bald, barren mean deprived of naturally or conventionally appropriate covering. ... nude applies especially to the unclothed human figure.

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    I think the answer is that it's now idiomatic, as you point out. Many of the other answers and comments seem to just state the obvious.
    – Jim Mack
    Jul 9, 2019 at 19:21
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    @JimMack This is wrong. It is not in any way idiomatic. It means what it literally says. Therefore it is not idiomatic. A cat photo is a photo of a cat. A clock hand is the hand of a clock; it is not a hand that is clocky. Cock crow is not a crow that is cocky. Child photos aren't photos that will someday grow up. Rather, they are photos OF children.
    – tchrist
    Jul 9, 2019 at 21:18
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    It is not idiomatic in the "a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g., rain cats and dogs, see the light)", but it is idiomatic in the second sense "a form of expression natural to a language, person, or group of people." Both are from OED
    – Carly
    Jul 9, 2019 at 21:54
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    @tchrist I asked the question 'Is a dead metaphor still a metaphor?' way back. It could well be argued that the primary sense of nude being naked, 'nude photographs', using 'nude' in other than its archetypal sense but in a universally accepted way, is an example of an idiom. Jul 11, 2019 at 11:09

It's often the case when describing containers that we use adjectives that describe their contents rather than their own intrinsic properties. (containers isn't a technical term but it fit the concept).

For example

  • a physics textbook isn't physics, rather the contents describe knowledge we have on the field of physics
  • your family photos aren't related to you, rather they're photos in which the subject is your family.
  • a beer bottle isn't made of beer, rather it contains beer.

I would not consider the phrase "nude photo" idiomatic, it's just the standard way of saying that the photo's subject is nude.

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    None of your examples involve adjectives; I think you're looking for the word "modifier".
    – ruakh
    Jul 13, 2019 at 3:48

From the OED, bold emphasis mine:


A3c. (adj) Of a work of art, form of entertainment, etc.: involving or portraying one or more naked or scantily clad people; performed without clothing. Also of an actor or model: that performs or poses unclothed.

  • 1869 D. N. Camp Amer. Year-bk. I. 791 Her charms, so freely exhibited on the stage at this time that to her example the successful origin of the nude drama is attributed, were also used as the means of unnumbered conquests.
  • 1874 Atlantic Monthly Nov. 532 We, of the legitimate, who regard the nude drama as a highly demoralizing innovation..went our several ways.
  • 1888 Dict. National Biogr. at Daniel, George Several extant oil-paintings..are not improbably the work of George himself, as is also the full-length nude study of a nymph.
  • 1959 Listener 15 Jan. 132/3 The night-clubs in Calvin's city put on nude shows.
  • 1974 Publishers Weekly 26 Aug. 250/3 A novel about a nude model who longs for true love.
  • 1982 A. Maupin Further Tales of City 81 Some of the boys did an impressive nude water ballet to the music of ‘Tea for Two’.
  • 2000 Country Music People May 30/3 He shouldn't have taken those nude photos, but no matter.

B2a. (n) Art. With the: the naked or undraped human figure conceived of as an aesthetic object; the representation of this in art.

after French †nud painting of a naked human figure (1676). Compare Anglo-Norman and Middle French nu, nud (early 12th cent.; French nu), Italian nudo (a1294; a1472 in sense ‘painting of a naked human figure’)

  • 1760 D. Webb Inq. Beauties Painting iv. 51 The result of this habit is evident, when our first artists come to design the nud.
  • 1782 R. Cumberland Anecd. Painters Spain I. 56 Being most in the nude, their crime will in some people's judgment appear their recommendation.
  • 1854 T. Martin Correggio iii. 65 I love the nude; Garments are nothing but the veils to beauty.
  • 1868 R. Browning Ring & Bk. I. i. 4 Modern chalk drawings, studies from the nude.
  • 1887 F. M. Crawford Saracinesca i The French school had not [yet] demonstrated the startling distinction between the nude and the naked.
  • 1915 W. Cather Song of Lark i. xvi. 111 Ray found that his brakemen were likely to have what he termed ‘a taste for the nude in art’.
  • 1974 M. Ayrton Midas Consequence viii. 208 Most of what I do is founded on, or derived from, the nude, the stripped human body, as is most of the good bronze sculpture in this world.
  • 1992 Crafts Mar. 19/2 The nude is confronted in life class (and notice it is not called drawing class).
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    @user240918 no, it gives a full entry to every single distinct usage and meaning. There are 15 for "nude". There are no listings for "nude" in the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms.
    – OrangeDog
    Jul 10, 2019 at 12:16
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    @user240918 it is neither idion, nor idiomatic usage, whatever you think the difference is between them.
    – OrangeDog
    Jul 10, 2019 at 12:23
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    @user240918 a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words vs Relating to or exhibiting the forms of expression, grammatical constructions, phrases, etc. used in a distinctive way in a particular language, dialect, or language variety, formerly especially those considered nonstandard or colloquial. Now usually spec.: established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words.
    – OrangeDog
    Jul 10, 2019 at 12:37
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    It is not idiomatic in the "a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g., rain cats and dogs, see the light)", but it is idiomatic in the second sense "a form of expression natural to a language, person, or group of people." Both are from OED – Carly 14 hours ago
    – user 66974
    Jul 10, 2019 at 12:49
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    @user240918 If you are using that definition then everything in standard English is idiomatic. Everyone here will assume the usual definition instead.
    – OrangeDog
    Jul 10, 2019 at 13:06

Testing this out against my native speaker's understanding, I think there is a general pattern here. It may be relatively new, but I can't remember any time when I would not have understood it or might have been told off by an older person for abusing the language.

The pattern is that " photo", often means "photo depicting a " (or s plural). Tree photos. Hummingbird photos. Lorry photos. Cloud photos. Chair photos. None confuse me or sound wrong. Old computer photos (which parses as photos of old computers more than old photos of computers in my mind).

It's not unambiguous. "Newspaper photos" are likely to be snippets out of newspapers, not photos of newspapers. "Estate agent photos" are likely to be of houses for sale, not the people selling them.

BTW Is this a particular issue for people whose first language is a Latin one? I ask because this reminded me of a bleakly comic scene in "A Canticle for Liebowicz" wherein a few hundred years after a nuclear war destroyed the world, a monk whose first language is Latin who believes that "fallouts" were demons the destroyed his ancient world, is trying to make sense of a sign stating "Fallout survival shelter capacity 12".

Edit: I think Alexandre Aubrey's answer nails it. It's all to do with the directly modified object being a container.

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    In spanish, the appropriate use of prepositions will change the meaning: A "nude photo", literally translated "foto desnuda", has not the same meaning (it would be roughly "a naked photo", made with no tricks). Instead we say "foto de desnudo(s)". Note that we changed the gender of nude to "neutral" as is not referring itself to the photograpy -in Spanish a feminine noun- and we added the preposition "de", that in this case is telling us the theme of the photo (lit: "photo of nude"). Jul 10, 2019 at 9:27
  • As a side note, I think the wordplay of the novel comes less with differences between the latin languages grammar and more with not knowing what Fallout is: without that knowledge, a Fallout survival shelter can mean either "a shelter where you survive the (radioactive) fallout)" or "a shelter where you survive the fallout (race))". It helps that a Fallout can be interpreted as "some(thing/one) that fell out (from the sky)", aka a Fallen Angel. Given the religious background of some of the characters (I only looked at the synopsis, so may be wrong), this can be a possible interpretation. Jul 10, 2019 at 9:33
  • @Stormbolter his concern is that the shelter may contain fallouts, and whether they could have survived for centuries, and why would any person have wanted to help them to do so, and he is grappling with the adjectival use of nouns that this question was about ... but I'd never spotted the possible connection between "fallout" and fallen angel that might explain how the misinterpretation could arise. I'll have to read it again now. It's a great book.
    – nigel222
    Jul 11, 2019 at 11:01

Recent news events in the US have resulted in many headlines about "nude photos of young women" and variations.

[W]hy does this phrasing persist?

Quoting (adding emphasis) from Joseph Henrich's 2016 book, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter: from p. 231:

[L]anguages arise from long-term cumulative cultural evolution. Like other aspects of culture ... our ... spoken languages ... have evolved via cultural transmission over generations to improve the efficiency and quality of communication, and to adapt to the details of local communication contexts, including ... social norms (like taboos).

From p. 232:

[A]mong our ancestors, cultural evolution accumulated, integrated, and honed many useful communicative elements over long stretches of time into increasingly complex repertoires[.]

Presumably this phrasing persists (within our local communication context) because, in our attempts to communicate this general idea, each of the exact communicative elements "nude photos" and "young women" contains enough pressure (perhaps arising from social norms) to survive (rather than dropping to the cutting room floor): perhaps this is because both elements are salacious, or refer to some current political themes, or otherwise have impact, which is presumably desired by the news headline editors. By this phrasing, the editors communicate to us a doublet of ideas: that the women are young, and that, normally, they are not nude. Presumably they are nice, acceptable people. This meaning is less conveyed by the phrasing, "photos of nude, young women."

So, the fact that both communicative elements persist (or that this phrasing persists) follows no grammatical rule: i.e., it is idiosyncratic (rather than idiomatic, precisely speaking).

Also, the very fact that our language productions typically follow various grammatical patterns is itself merely the result of our idiosyncratically weighing those grammatical patterns along with many other cultural factors, in our attempt to achieve success.

  • Are you saying that this wording is needed to convey the idea that the women are normally not nude? Does anybody really think that 'photos of nude, young women' implies otherwise?
    – jsw29
    Jul 13, 2019 at 0:42
  • @jsw29 Arguably, "nude photos of young women" labels and objectifies them the least, "photos of young, nude women" does so the most, and "photos of nude, young women" falls in the middle—wouldn't you say? Jul 13, 2019 at 4:39

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