To buff or not to buff?

bookI was recently preparing a piece of short fiction for my next MA assignment (see earlier post), when I found myself using the word ‘buff’ in the following sentence: … it was a very small book, which had lost its cover slip, and, shorn of this, was buff coloured and lightly dimpled to the touch. There is a picture of the very book at the head of this post. I had placed it on the desk in front of me for inspiration.

Even as I typed those words, the thought crossed my mind that somewhere I had heard the word ‘buff’ being used by a younger female person in a totally different context. In case I had made a terrible and suggestive mistake, I referred to an on-line dictionary and, sure enough, discovered that the word ‘buff’ has acquired a very specific and different meaning from the ones I was taught at school.

There it was in grey and white on my computer screen:

Buff – Adjective (of a person or their body) in good physical shape with well-developed muscles. (Originally North American)

An example of usage was given – ‘the driver was a buff blond, named March’

It was then that I remembered the context in which I had heard the young lady use the word. I will spare her blushes and maintain her anonymity, but she was referring to a male colleague at the time. I thought hard about my own recollection of this male colleague, then I checked my writing again to make sure that there could be no hint of double entendre in the way I had used it. I could see none, but you can’t be too careful. This was an assignment, after all, and you don’t want tutors laughing for the wrong reasons when they have power over two other four-letter words – ‘pass’ and ‘fail’. On the other hand, they probably get too few laughs when marking assignments, and might appreciate a bit of a titter from time to time.

Anyway, the whole episode got me thinking about the rather wonderful way in which the English language works, when you can have a short four-letter word like ‘buff’ mean so many different things. To me, these are some of the longer standing meanings of the word:

Buff (adj) – a beige colour, as used in my sentence

Buff (noun) – an expert or enthusiast, as in ‘he’s a computer buff’

Buff (verb) – to polish

Buff (noun) – a pad used for polishing

There’s the phrase ‘steady the buffs’ where the word has military connections rooted deep in history

And now, I suppose, there is Buff (adj) – fanciable, with well-developed muscles

I am sure the bright and informed readers of this blog knew much of this already and will be able to think of other, perhaps many other, meanings for the word. I am not implying, by the way, that readers of this blog are ‘buffers’- don’t let me get started on six-letter derivatives as well.

For now, just enjoy, if you can, the subtle, multi-faceted, ever-changing beauty of our language.

About Eric Sinclair

Writer, stroke survivor, whippet owner, music lover, charity volunteer
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3 Responses to To buff or not to buff?

  1. Eileen says:

    Always best to consult an ‘urban’ dictionary – words change their meaning so quickly now.

  2. John Forbes says:

    Steady the Buff’s- Waterloo infantry regiment tradition who I believe wear a cap badge over their eyes and at the back of the head because of some feat of arms?

  3. B Maki says:

    also, there’s the semi-suggestive meaning of ‘naked’, such as the phrase ‘in the buff’ (example sentence: “people generally don’t go swimming in the buff in public places”)

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