BUFF.

I was looking up something else in the OED when I happened on sense 6.b. of the entry buff, n.2 ‘A buffalo, or other large species of wild ox’:

‘An enthusiast about going to fires’ (Webster 1934); so called from the buff uniforms worn by volunteer firemen in New York City in former times. Hence gen., an enthusiast or specialist. Chiefly N. Amer. colloq.

The first cite for the fire-enthusiast meaning is 1903, the first non-fireman-related one 1931 (Lavine Third Degree vi. 62 “A dentist, known to many cops as a police buff (a person who likes to associate with members of the department and in exchange for having the run of the station house does various courtesies for the police)”). Who knew that the buff of “sports buff” goes back to buffalo, via the buff(alo)-colored uniforms worn by volunteer firemen in New York City? The actual facts of etymology are so much fun I don’t see why people have to resort to imaginary acronyms and the like.

Comments

  1. Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, where the university sports teams are known as the “Buffs,” short for buffalo, I’m pretty sure this is the first sense of the word I ever knew. “Go Buffs!” And as a former employee of The Buff Restaurant, I should exhort you to “Eat in the Buff.”

  2. So, taking this a little farther back, one would think (at least a layman like me would think) that buffalo, being an American critter, is derived from some Native American word. But, no, I find in my trusty American Heritage: “Portuguese buffalo, from Vulgar Latin bufalus (unattested), from Latin bubalus, from Greek boubalos, African antelope, buffalo, probably from bous, cow, ox.”

  3. More “buff” citations from Barry Popik here.

  4. eric Banks says:

    Does anybody know where the euphemism “in the buff” = “buck naked” comes from?

  5. Martin, the American buffalo is an American critter, but there were plenty of non-American buffalo back in the Old World. Some people will even call you wrong if you use the word “buffalo” to refer to a bison.
    My question is what buffalo have a buff color. Things I’ve seen described as “buff” have been a lot lighter in color than the buffalo I’m familiar with.

  6. I believe buff is the color of the dressed hide and the leather, not while it’s still on the animal. The fur color may also contribute to the last.
    Buff the verb meaning ‘polish’ is from the same source, originally referring to using a buff-stick or buff-wheel covered with buff-skin.
    The root of bous also gives beef, and oddly enough, cow: one of the few Saxon / Norman pairs that come from the same PIE root via different sound-change paths.
    “in the buff,” originally “in buff,” is the same metaphor: in skin, then in your own skin. The former sense was still in Shakespeare, but a slightly later pun shows the emerging naked sense (“in stag” also means ‘naked’ then).

  7. Buff Buffalo buffalo buff buff Buffalo buffalo buffalo, buff buff Buffalo buffalo buff Buffalo buffalo buffalo buff!

  8. May I humby question trhe connection between “buff” as a colour and “buffalo”.
    IANALexicographer, but I have come across a reference to the colour from mid-17th century England, where familiarity with American megafauna seems unlikely. I am thinking of the transcript of the Putney Debates in 1647, where the leading officers of the Parliamentary army discussed the future of the English constitution with representatives of the rank and file. During the first session, one such representative (probably John Wildman), who was not recognised by the note taker, is described as “buff-coat” to identify him. Surely this must predate any buffalos?
    I suppose “In the buff” is unfortunately all about white people, and simply descriptive.

  9. Buff-coats were heavy unfinished leather coats worn by 17th-century soldiers as protection. (Incidentally, see the Royal East Kent Regiment, known as the Buffs because they wore unfinished – ie brownish – leather belts and facings, rather than white finished leather like the rest of the Army).
    “In the buff” might just imply that someone is unclothed and in their natural colours.
    Buffalo is certainly not specific to the Americas – large bovines are called buffalo wherever they are (Cape buffalo, water buffalo etc).

  10. Graham Asher says:

    I used to wear a buff-coat myself as a member of the Sealed Knot (http://www.thesealedknot.org.uk/). I suppose in those days I was a Civil War buff.

  11. Chris: The word buffalo did not originally refer to “American megafauna.”

  12. “Buffy-coat” is used in medicine to describe the fraction of the blood containing the white cells, etc., because of the color.
    I’ve also seen the word in Chinese translations for a certain kind of soldier (Karlgren, I think). Presumably from the English military usage.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    BTW, I’ve heard (on TV) that the usage of “buffalo” for bison could be a misunderstanding of a probably unattested French bœuf de l’eau, the latter alluding to the fact that bison love water. Does someone here know more?

  14. marie-lucie says:

    a probably unattested French bœuf de l’eau …
    This looks like a textbook case of folk etymology involving a foreign language (I don’t think there is a technical term for this, but probably there should be).
    I was not aware that bison loved water: the traditional image of bison is of huge herds on the prairies, raising clouds of dust as they gallop across the land, not of large animals typically wallowing in water like hippos. No doubt they must be able to cross streams, like caribou, and refresh themselves in lakes, but water is not their natural habitat.
    However, if a French person had somehow got the idea that the bison was called “water ox” in English, and wanted to translate this phrase literally, the result would be bœuf d’eau not bœuf de l’eau: compare “water hen” poule d’eau, “watercourse” cours d’eau, “glass of water” verre d’eau, etc. Those are not translations from English, witness also salle d’eau lit. “water room”, a combination shower and laundry room found in some lower cost housing projects.
    The French word for the American buffalo is le bison but the Asian water buffalo is le buffle. According to the Petit Robert dictionary, this word is attested since the year 1213, a borrowing from Italian bufalo, itself from Vulgar Latin bufalus, as opposed to Classical Latin bubalus which must be from Greek. Portuguese influence must be responsible for the ff.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    p.s. bœuf à l’eau could have been suggested instead of bœuf de l’eau, as more in keeping with the sounds, but would make even less sense as it means “beef [cooked] in water”.

  16. “buff” meaning “of buff leather” is from the 1500s. European buffalo, NOT American.

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