I've been researching the origin of the term "butch" and noticed that sources tend to be split on whether they mention it originating from Polari.

OED, Green's Dictionary of Slang (adj., noun) and the Online Etymology Dictionary all seem to point to entirely U.S. origins, presumably from a shortening of "butcher" to a stereotypically masculine nickname (~1870s), to a representation of masculinity generally (~1900s), to a gay male masculinity (~1930s), to a lesbian masculinity (~1940s).

Several sources (such as Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang) note that the term originates in Polari, a gay argot spoken primarily in England and Ireland (no time of origination is given, but late 19th or early 20th century is implied).

Did the term originate in the U.S., travel back to England, then travel back to the U.S. again?

Is there a crossing of potential etymologies here? Am I missing a primary resource or reference?

What is the presumed origination of "butch", taking into account Polari and non-Polari descriptions?

  • 2
    Even if it originated in the U.S., it could easily have been adapted into Polari some time after 1930. There wasn't any official academy of Polari that attempted to keep foreign words out (like the Académie Française). And then people in the U.K. would simply have assumed that it originated in Polari. Nov 25, 2020 at 14:47
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    "Polari, a gay argot spoken primarily in England" The OED has that Polari originated in the !8C/19C as slang for various groups "including sailors, vagrants, circus people, entertainers, etc." and only "In the mid 20th cent. a form of the language was taken up by some homosexuals, esp. in London.". My guess is that the "masculinity" senses might have originated in America, but the gay male/lesbian meanings came about (or became more common) when Polari was adopted by mid-20C homosexuals.
    – TripeHound
    Nov 25, 2020 at 15:41
  • @PeterShor Ohhhhh I see. So it could do nickname --> masculinity --> gay masc in the States, travel to the UK separately and enter Polari, while entering the lesbian lexicon in the States? Nov 25, 2020 at 15:41
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    @vectory - I don’t think it was ever a pun on bitch.
    – Jim
    Jan 9, 2021 at 2:05
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    Except the given name Butch actually DIDN'T come from a shortening of "butcher." Butch is an Anglo-Saxon given name that goes back over 1,000 years, even predating the Norman Conquest. It started as a name for someone with facial features like a buzzard (i.e., "butchard" in Old English). By 1066 AD, a Butch had made such a name for himself his given name had been passed down as his family name, the Butch family by then already holding a family seat in Devon in what is now England, thus the name Butch appearing in Domesday Book (1086 AD). (houseofnames.com/butch-family-crest) May 4, 2021 at 3:41

1 Answer 1


My 1972 reprint of “Passing English of the Victorian Era” by J. Redding Vale, first published 1909, has this definition of butcher, as used in public houses:

One of the synonyms for ‘stout’ - obtained probably from the general observation that few butchers are thin and narrow.

If then butch comes from butcher, then it was more to do with corpulence than rugged masculinity.

  • It depends which sense of 'butcher' (if any) 'butch' derived from. Mar 25, 2021 at 17:55
  • The traditional butcher stereotype is definitely jolly and stout (and male), as in this model.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 21, 2021 at 16:23

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