Posted by Jay Livingston
“I nipped that in the butt.”A friend posted that conversation with her husband on her Facebook page. The original metaphor is clear - you nip the bud before the problem can grow any larger. But the husband’s version also makes sense – you give the problem a little bite in the ass as a warning to stop.*
“Don’t you mean bud?”
“I’ve been saying butt my whole life.”
The Easy Aces, in their 1930s radio show, specialized in this sort of logical malapropism. “You could’ve knocked me over with a fender,” and “They’re having trouble making ends neat,” were two that my mother remembered.
Butt seems to be growing more acceptable, so it’s not surprising that it’s displacing similar-sounding words in these idioms. The one I’ve noticed most is “butt naked” displacing “buck naked.” What the hell does “buck naked” mean anyway? By contrast, “butt naked” evokes an image you can immediately visualize.
N-grams shows that buck is still kicking butt, at least in books. But even there, the trend is buck down and butt up.
* Many years ago, a student in my class wrote that someone was “cool, calm, and collective.” I chuckled, but the meaning of the “correct” word, collected, isn’t readily obvious. I still think of this phrase when I read people like George Will fretting about Obama (a much-mocked example is here).