Q&A: Naked vs nude

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're learning nude things by uncovering the naked truth…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a sensitive topic to ask about this week.

A: What is it?

Q: Well, I was talking to my friend about her art class the other day and she said they were painting nudes.

A: Okay, that seems normal.

Q: Sure, and I get “nude” as a noun. In fact, my uncle used to be a nude model on Mondays and Thursdays. And do you want to know why he only posed on those days?

A: Sure, why just those days?

Q: Because those were the days that he had nothing on! Hahaha.

A: That was terrible.

Q: Anyway, so my question is about when you describe someone without any clothes. Do you say that they’re “naked” or “nude”?

A: That’s actually a very good question. Both can be used to describe the absence of clothes – e.g. “she stood naked in the shower” or “he went swimming nude”. However one is more limited in its use, while the other has a few other roles.

Q: Do tell.

A: Macquarie Dictionary describes “nude” as “naked or unclothed, as a person, the body, etc.” And while there are some exceptions (e.g. nude tights or nude make-up), it almost always relates to a person without clothing.

Q: So “nude” means “naked”?

A: Yes. And “naked” also means “nude”. However, whereas “nude” was almost exclusively concerned with humans, “naked” can have more abstract meanings. In fact, Macquarie Dictionary covers off more than a dozen ways that “naked” relates to other things.

Q: Examples?

A: Without vegetation (e.g. “naked fields”); anything stripped back (e.g. “naked of foliage”); a room without furniture; the “naked eye” – meaning to see without instruments; the “naked truth” or “naked ambition” – meaning simple and unadorned; a “naked burger” – one without bread; or a “naked flame” – from a candle or match.

Q: Wow, it certainly has a lot of other uses.

A: It sure does.

Q: So essentially I can use either for someone without clothes?

A: Yes, whichever fits your context. Although as you have already pointed out, “nude” can be a noun too – so you might visit Florence to see Michelangelo’s “David” – one of the world’s famous nudes.

Q: Ah yes, making men feel better about their genitalia since 1504.

A: Exactly.

Q: So anything else to add on the subject?

A: For a long time “nude” was also a colour akin to beige; a mix of brown and white. Of course, in today’s diverse-aware world, companies are redefining what “nude” means to people of all complexions. Clothing manufacturers for example are producing six different shades of “nude” – to match various skin tones.

Q: Wow – who knew there was a new nude?

A: Indeed.

Q: I’ve definitely learnt something nude today…

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