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Buff

Pronounced /bʌf/Help with IPA

Glancing through the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday of this week, I came across the sentence “A plan to build a full-size replica of the Titanic to carry 2,000 well-heeled disaster buffs across the Atlantic on the 90th anniversary of the ship’s only voyage has been put forward by a Swiss-American consortium”. I had to pause to let my mind stop boggling at the titanic hubris of this. It seems that the consortium intends to build the replica from the original plans, which survive in Belfast, but on reading on I discovered that the quest for authenticity did not extend to maintaining the original number of lifeboats, nor of doing without iceberg-detecting radar.

What struck me in that sentence most, from a lexicographical point of view, was the word buff. This simple word has a wide variety of senses, of which a couple of others turned up in headlines in other recent editions: “Men of iron strip to the buff” and “Opera plays blindman’s-buff”.

Most of the meanings are linked to buffalo. One of my reference books (I shall leave it unnamed so as not to embarrass its author) suggests that the word originated in the US as the result of the great buffalo hunts of last century. There is an American link, which I’ll come back to, but the word itself is very much older, being recorded from about the middle of the sixteenth century.

So the buffalo referred to was almost certainly not the American one, which I believe was unknown to Europeans at the time, but one of the several species of Asiatic wild oxen (and buffalo buffs will know that the American plains buffalo technically isn’t a buffalo anyway, but a species of bison that’s most closely related to the wisent or European bison). The origin of buffalo is the Greek boubalos, though that didn’t refer to the buffalo either, which the Greeks didn’t have, but was instead the name for a species of antelope. The word was later taken up in Latin for the Indian buffalo, or water buffalo, which was introduced into Italy as a draught animal about the year 600. This animal was widely used in the warmer parts of southern Europe and in North Africa in medieval times.

Just to confuse you further, the short form buff, usually in the spelling buffe, came into English before buffalo, in about 1550, being derived from the French version of the word, buffle. Buffalo itself is only recorded in 1588, and seems to have arrived via the Portuguese, who came across various such species during their explorations in Asia (they’d reached India in 1499).

From here on we have a series of changes verging on the bizarre. The first was to use buff (or buffe) as the term, not only for the animal, but also for its hide, specifically its tanned hide turned into leather. Later the term was transferred to another very stiff kind of leather made from ox hide, which was softened with oil and used for military uniforms. This sense is used in my translation of Dumas’ Three Musketeers: “The baldric was glittering with gold in the front, but was nothing but simple buff behind”. So buff-coat was a nickname for a soldier and to wear buff or be in buff was to be in the army. Buff leather was a characteristic light colour, not unlike that of the skin of Europeans exposed to the sun, so it soon led to the expression to be in the buff, or naked. Thomas Dekker is first recorded as using it in 1602: “I go in stag, in buff” (the first part of that line brings to mind the much later expression buck naked, from buckskin, a similar sort of derivation). Strips of leather were once used in various metal finishing trades to bring goods to a high polish, so leading to our verb to buff meaning “to polish”, and to the noun meaning a device to do the polishing with. And the colour of buffalo leather was, of course, the source of the word’s meaning of things yellowish-brown.

In turn, this led to one of the more famous military nicknames in the British army, the Buffs, for a regiment originally raised in 1572 to serve against the Dutch but which later became the Royal East Kent Regiment, and which got its nickname from the colour of their uniform facings, when this was a new thing to have. The old catchphrase Steady the Buffs!, a term of encouragement or warning to oneself or others, fairly common in the early part of this century, was popularised by Rudyard Kipling in his Soldiers Three of 1888: “I’d like to see Mr Khan being rude to that girl! Hullo! Steady the Buffs!”. It’s firmly stated in several reference books that the expression originated in an incident in the regiment’s history. The trouble is, nobody seems to know for sure what it was. Some say it was through an encouraging cry by the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo, but the Buffs weren’t there; some others apply it to the foundering of the troopship Birkenhead off the Cape in 1852, when the Buffs were ordered to stand firm and let the women and children off first, but the Buffs weren’t there either. Gregory Blaxland, the historian of the regiment, says it was an exhortation to the second battalion of the Buffs by its adjutant while in Malta not to be shown up in the presence of his former regiment, the Royal North British Fusiliers. His cry of “Steady the Buffs”, Blaxland says, was taken up in mockery by the Fusiliers, followed the Buffs to Dublin some years later, and became a catchphrase. It would seem that Kipling came across it at some point.

The last of this curiously-connected batch is that for the avid devotee of some activity. This is where we do cross the Atlantic, since it allegedly derives from New York volunteer firemen of the early part of last century. They wore buff-coats as a uniform, or heavy buffalo robes as winter wear, and so were known as buffs. Their enthusiasm in rushing to fires became a byword and so a permanent part of the language.

Just to tidy things up: blindman’s buff has nothing to do with any of these, but derives from the same source as the word buffet for a blow. This game was at one time for adults (Pepys records in his diary that he played it), and a rather rough one at that, which often involved the blindfolded person fending off blows from those around him. This is also the source of buffer in its various senses of something that resists blows or reduces the effect of an impact. This turns up in buffer zone and railway buffers, in the chemists’ usage of a compound that resists changes to the acidity or alkalinity of a solution, and the computer sense of a block of memory that evens out the rate of communication between two devices.

Page created 11 Apr. 1998
Last updated 25 Aug. 2007

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Last modified: 25 August 2007.