Q&A: “Nip in the butt” vs “nip in the bud”

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, bud wiser…

Q: Hey AWC – can you clear something up for me?

A: Is it a rash? Because if it’s a rash, we cannot help.

Q: It’s not a rash.

A: Okay, please proceed.

Q: Which one is correct? “Nip it in the butt” or “nip it in the bud”?

A: Ahhhh, yes, good question.

Q: To me, nipping something in the butt would be more likely to stop whatever it was. 

A: Sooooo based on what you know about English?

Q: Then the most likely one is not the correct one?

A: Ding ding ding – you get a prize!

Q: Ugh, so the correct phrase is to nip something in the BUD? 

A: Yep.

Q: How does one even nip something in the bud? Are we talking regular strength or Bud Light?

A: Haha, no it’s nothing to do with beer. Hmmm, let’s backtrack first, and examine the meaning of the phrase. Macquarie Dictionary lists “nip in the bud” as “to stop (something) before it gets under way.”

Q: If I got nipped in my butt, I’d certainly stop. Just sayin…

A:  You should know by now that logic plays no part in these kinds of discussions. 

Q: So, why a “bud”? Are we smoking it? Is it from a flower?

A: Yeah, the last one – relating to that first bud of growth, like you might see when a plant or crop first pokes out above the ground. The phrase dates all the way back to 1600, meaning to “kill or destroy in the first stage of growth”. It came along just after “nip” had taken on the frosty “nip in the air” meaning – and frosts often kill off plants.

Q: Now that you’ve explained it, the ‘bud’ thing makes a lot more sense. So, why then do so many people say ‘nip it in the butt’?

A: Well, we haven’t had a chance to personally chat with all of them yet. But seriously, it’s likely the corruption has occurred because of two reasons. The first is what you already touched on – initially “butt” seems to make more visual sense than the more ambiguous “bud”. 

Q: Yeah, true. What’s the other reason?

A: It might have something to do with giving someone a “kick in the butt” – which means to severely reprimand. For example, “When I see Steve, I’m going to give him a kick in the butt”. 

Q: Oh my, what did Steve do?

A: Not important. But perhaps the idea of kicking a butt to reprimand seems similar to nipping a butt to stop something. When the wrong word or phrase seems to make more sense than the correct one, it’s called an “eggcorn” (itself named for a word mistakenly used instead of “acorn”). There are hundreds of examples – we’ve covered many in these chats before.

Q: What’s another eggcorn example?

A: A common one is “for all intensive purposes” when it should be “for all intents and purposes”. Also, instead of “Alzheimer’s Disease”, some think it is “Old Timer’s Disease”!

Q: Oh wow.

A: Yep. English is a minefield.

Q: Okay, so to recap today, we’re stopping the plant from growing into a flower or strawberry or grapevine or whatever. And it’s used figuratively for ANY situation we want to stop early – we’re “nipping it in the bud” before it has a chance to grow. Yeah?

A: Simple as that!

Q: I still want to know what Steve did.

A: He nipped all the butts and made everyone cry.

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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