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shameless pleading






Peas in a pod.

Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of the word “buddy”? — Alastair Craig.

Ah, a succinct question, but an interesting one. “Buddy” is a versatile little word. On the surface, “buddy” is an American invention meaning simply “friend,” “comrade” or “pal,” well suited for use in such sentences as “My buddy Stan and I went to the movies on Saturday and ran into Stan’s ex-wife, who was there with Stan’s boss, and now Stan needs a new job and a good lawyer.” But used by a master of sarcasm, say a New York City cab driver or newsstand operator, “buddy” can, with the right intonation, mean anything from “idiot” (“Hey buddy, the light ain’t gonna get any greener”) to “thief” (“Yo, buddy, this ain’t no library”).

There are two theories about the origins of “buddy,” which first appeared in the mid-19th century, one fairly likely and one a bit more complicated and perhaps unlikely. The more likely story about “buddy” is that it is simply a form of “brother,” perhaps based on a childish or dialectical pronunciation of the word. “Buddy” was originally found largely in African-American dialectical English at that time, but quickly spread into general colloquial use, and eventually also became a form of address used with a person whose name is not known (“Hey, buddy, gimme a hand here”). “Buddy” also became a verb meaning “to become friendly with,” as well as spawning such forms as “buddy-buddy” (very friendly) and the “buddy system,” wherein two people are charged with each other’s safety during an activity.

If “buddy” is not simply a mutation of “brother,” however, it may be a form of “butty,” a 19th century English dialect term for “companion.” This “butty,” in turn, appears to be a corruption of “booty,” a term dating back to the 15th century and meaning (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) “plunder, gain, or profit acquired in common and destined to be divided among the winners.” Thus a “booty-fellow” (16th century) or “butty” would be a comrade who participates in an enterprise, legal or not, and shares in the proceeds. Citations for “butty” in a sense interchangeable with “buddy” are found as recently as the 1930s, but it is impossible to know whether these are examples of an original form of “buddy” or simply a later mutation of “buddy” itself.

18 comments to Buddy

  • Eastern Promise

    Where I grew up in Devon, south-west England, calling someone “my buddy” or “my biddy” is part of the local dialect, viz. “Ello there my biddy, what can I do for thee?” I assume this is a remnant of your “19th century English dialect term” – still in use today. The south-west of England has a very conservative dialect (sadly dying out now) and of course has been very active in seafaring (and, whisper it, piracy) for centuries.

  • Man

    Buddy is said to have come from slave creoles, where buddy was a corruption of brother. Source: The adventure of English.

  • JD

    I was doing a rhetorical analysis on Advertising in my college English class. An alternative and as yet non scholarly thought was that a buddy might have come from someone you drink a bud with? I don’t know how early people referred to Budweiser as a bud in the local pubs. The company was selling beer from 1875 and won exclusive trademark rights to the name in North America in 1895. The term buddy seems to have grown in the US in the years following prohibition. Coincidence or collision? Going to the pub to meet some bud’s has a wonderful double meaning if so. Just thinking some English chap visits a bar, uses the term butty, Americans hear buddy… and guess at meaning of a fellow you drink a bud with in short a friend. they pick up term and it spreads. Unfortunately almost impossible to prove.

  • dc

    Reasearching some Aussie history, I found a piece about an encounter between Aboriginals and Englishmen in the very late 1700s. The Englishmen had an Aboriginal that was helping them trek through the bush. One night they encountered another tribe of Aboriginies…

    “By the light of the moon, we were introduced to this gentleman, all our names being repeated in form by our two masters of the ceremonies, who said that we were Englishmen and ‘budyeeree’ (good), that we came from the sea coast, and that we were travelling inland.”


    Anyways, just a thought :)

  • Matt

    I have been doing research for my living history character and reading many letters from American civil war soldiers. I’ve found a letter written to the soldier’s sister that is closed “Your bud”. In this case BUD is an abbreviation for “Brother Until Death” which was a very common way to close a letter in the 19th C.

  • Lee

    I once met an extremely intelligent elderly black gentleman who grew up in the south and we became friends over time. One day I walked up and said, “hey buddy, how are you?” Immediately he became very angry and replied, “don’t call me buddy!” You are not my slave master and I am not your slave! Nor am I a low life! Of course, I meant no harm but apparently the name buddy has a darker origin not known to present-day people…. (food for thought).

  • I live in North East Cornwall near Launceston where the Devon border is just a couple of miles down the road and the term Bud or Buddy (“all right Bud”) (“OK Buddy”) is used on a regular basis by local people. I was brought up in the area around Redruth and the term “Pard” was used in the same way. I am 63 and because of the large number of “foreigners” (English)who have moved to the county these terms are being lost.

    I will be cycling with my club tomorrow and probably a quarter the group will welcome each other by using the above terms. Bud or Buddy relates to this small area of the country and I assume it was taken to the USA by early settlers such as miners and farmers.

  • Mass

    The etymology of the word goes back to the Pastho word ‘Badda’ which means partner. The word was brought to English or was anglicised during the colonial era of the British india company.

  • Jock

    A common use in Scotland is to call someone from Paisley a “Paisley buddy”. “buddy” is a phonetic spelling of the Scots word “body” or person as in “abody”-everybody. In Robert Burns’ song “Comin Through the Rye” it is used in every verse and particularly
    “Gin a body meet a body
    Comin through the rye
    Gin a body kiss a body
    Need a body cry”
    It was and still is pronounced “buddy” and can be used in a variety of ways: “A puir body”-A poor soul, “A gey queer body”-An odd person and so on. Since many speakers of Lowland Scots went to America from its earliest beginnings as an English colony (James VI, King of Scots succeeded Elizabeth of England in 1603 and Jamestown is named after him) and the settlers referred to as Scotch-Irish(Lowland Scots who were settled first in what is now Northern Ireland and subsequently emigrated to America for reasons of religious freedom) their linguistic and other contributions to America are generally overlooked. Many slave owners in the Southern states were of Scottish heritage and also many in the Caribbean who supplied slaves to American plantations. Their vocabulary, dialect and so on would have been learned by their slaves. It is worth noting how African American families have names of Scottish origin and that the majority of US Presidents are from “Scotch-Irish” backgrounds. I would suggest that this is the most likely origin of the word.

  • Adam

    What about the Dutch slang “boetie” meaning little brother or friend? It seems quite likely. Many Dutch words and derivations make their way into English, such as “pinkie.”
    There is much less phonetic speculation here – many word initial consonant-r combinations have survived for thousands of years into English, such as brother, tractor, etc. from Sanskrit. Does anyone know what the OED says on this one?

  • Denise

    With Dutch history in the US, the Dutch “boet” or “boetie” meaning brother and little brother in diminutive form would seem to be the most likely The sea use is very common in South Africa in Afrikaans, which is a rural and early form of Dutch.

  • MB

    My understanding is it comes from “butty” which was a companion narrowboat pulled along by the main narrow boat I.e a close companion.

  • On a recent visit to Shetland for family research, I found my Great Uncle was referred to by ancient ladies as ‘a rare buddy’ (body) in affectionate terms. Equivalent perhaps, to saying he was a jolly good fellow.Shetland culture is much influenced by Norway.

  • Naik

    I think the origin of the word is from Spanish for buds which is Brotes, which sounds like brothers, hence its used for brother or friend.

  • Carol the Dabbler

    A fairly large number of origins have been suggested here for “buddy” — but it’s interesting to note that most of them have the same basic meaning, namely “brother.” This presumably means that all of them ultimately derive from the same Indo-European root word. In other words, we can say simply that “buddy” comes from a word meaning “brother” and have a high likelihood of being historically accurate.

    I also find it interesting that “buddy” and “pal,” despite sounding quite different in current English, apparently both derive from that same root (with “pal” apparently coming via Romany).

  • David Ramsay-kerr

    My Scottish grandfather once said of an associate (and fellow trout-fishing aficionado), “He’s bad so much my friend as my buddy”).

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