Q&A: Naked vs nude

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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