Button, button, who’s got the button?

The English verb butt, as when people butt heads or butt into a conversation, is, if not short and sweet, at least short. Such pithy, direct English words are often native, but butt entered the language from Old French bouter ‘to strike, thrust.’ If that sounds like Spanish botar—which can mean ‘to throw, throw away, cast, bounce, bound, knock over’—it’s because Old French bouter and Spanish botar were both borrowed from a word of Germanic origin.

From the verb bouter Old French created the noun boton, literally ‘something that thrusts forward.’ That has passed into English as button and into Spanish as botón, which now has additional meanings that include ‘knob, handle’ and ‘sprout, bud.’ In recent years Spanish has adopted botón de(l) ratón as a translation of the English computer term mouse button.

For more on the title of today’s post, you can check out a Wikipedia article.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    Oct 21, 2014 @ 13:10:39

    Related to baton? We passed it from runner to runner in a relay by thrusting it forward to the next person.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Oct 21, 2014 @ 17:13:01

      I’m afraid not, Jim, because the French form of the word that English borrowed is bâton, where the circumflex accent indicates that in older French the word had an s: baston.


  2. shoreacres
    Oct 25, 2014 @ 11:22:32

    When I think about it, butt and button were constants in my childhood and youth. Even sweet little me was told from time to time to butt out. I knew not to make people the butt of jokes, and I knew that if Dad was particularly grumpy at the end of the day, it probably was because he’d been butting heads with someone.

    Buttons were everywhere. We played the game you mentioned in school, and I spent a lot of time playing with my grandmother and mother’s button boxes. We used buttons for markers on bingo cards, and gave cards with fancy buttons as party favors. I remember a set of pink plastic buttons shaped like tiny, intricate flower buds: more appropriate than I knew. And yes, when it comes time to dispose of an old shirt, I still snip off the buttons and save them. To quote every female I grew up around, “You never know.”

    And now I’m curious. Could Alain de Botton’s name be related to all this?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Oct 25, 2014 @ 12:21:55

      It’s possible, but often in a French compound name the word after de is a place; compare the similar Italian construction in Leonardo da Vinci and Leonardo da Pisa (known as Fibonacci). Of course even if Botton is a place name, it could still be connected to button.


  3. shoreacres
    Nov 09, 2014 @ 09:35:43

    Carl Sagan butts heads with Apple: a true story. And, I might add, a very funny story.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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