Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Today's Etymology: Buff

The August 30, 1927 New Yorker is trying to convince me that the term "buff" -- as in "enthusiast" -- came about in 1865, when New York's first paid fire department was organized. The older volunteers who USED to fight the fires still wanted to help out, so they'd sleep overnight in the fire houses, waiting for a chance to rush off with the official firemen and help put out fires.

Since the fire department wouldn't give them any bedding, the fire enthusiasts slept in heavy buffalo robes...hence "buff" as a term for somebody who is enthusiastic about something (eg. "film buff").

This sounded like a load of bunk to me, but it appears (in my short pre-work researches) to be pretty much true.


Eric Little said...

The OED has this to say about buff in the sense of enthusiast:

‘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 N. Amer. colloq.

This seems to imply that the name comes from the color "buff" (yellowish white) which in turn comes from the color of buffalo leather. (The textual examples go back to 1903 but do not help with the precise origin). The leather associations go back to Elizabethan times, as does the sense of "buff" as "naked," but what the latter has to do with buffalo--unless it's the color again--is not explained.

Adam Thornton said...

And strangely, "buff naked" is now "buck naked," and somebody who is "buff" is somebody who is "muscular/toned".

Maybe they're built like hairless buffalso?