Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Word of the day: buff

How rare it is these days to hear someone described as a buff. It’s a decidedly dowdy word. Buffs used to be everywhere: jazz buffs, camera buffs, stereo buffs. They were always male, and they wore madras shorts in summer, particularly at cookouts, where they spoke of Brubeck and Kenton, lenses and pre-amps. In cold weather, they switched to chinos and took the conversation indoors, sitting on mid-century chairs and sofas, with trays of cold cuts and bowls of pretzels at the ready.

That paragraph came from my imagination. The next two do not.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word and explains its surprising origin:

“An enthusiast about going to fires” (Webster 1934); so called from the buff uniforms worn by volunteer firemen in New York City in former times. Hence gen., an enthusiast or specialist. Chiefly North American colloquial.
The dictionary’s first citation is from the New York newspaper The Sun (1903): “The Buffs are men and boys whose love of fires, fire-fighting and firemen is a predominant characteristic.”

It seems that the color name buff — “of the colour of buff leather; a light brownish yellow” — comes from the French buffle, buffalo. The dictionary hedges: that’s “apparently” the origin.

And once again from my imagination:

If we ever go back to having cookouts and sitting on mid-century furniture, the surprising origin of buff will be something to word buffs for talk about. Or does they already know about it?

comments: 3

brownstudy said...

Is this also why being naked is being "in the buff" (tan coat, tan skin)?

I coud look it up but I know you'll enjoy the hunt more than I will :)

Elaine said...

We does.

Michael Leddy said...

@Mike: I shoulda thought of mentioning that. Believe it or not, the OED doesn‘t explain it. The dictionary says that buff-skin, or buff-leather, leather made from buffalo hide, is “a dull whitish-yellow colour.” I would guess that being “in the buff” has to do with color (with paleness as a default setting for humans) and with the idea of wearing nothing but your hide. As in gym class, skins vs. shirts.

@Elaine: :)