Wednesday, January 27, 2016
What You Thinking About When You Thinking About Buff?
Quick: What pops into your head when you hear the word “buff”? I’ll bet you’re thinking of a brawny guy who’s got hulkish traps, twenty-four inch pythons, and has difficulty fastening the top button of his Perry Ellis. Well, I’m not thinking about that “buff”, and frankly I could care less about those clunkheads. I’m more interested in sharing the roots of the term “buff” that we associate with a wonkish person, somebody who is really passionate and knowledgeable about some said subject matter like a Civil War buff or an Opera buff.
The word “buff”, as in a person who is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about a particular subject has an interesting etymology, and came about in the early 19th century. It was originally more of a putdown than a compliment. Back then, in the burgeoning New York City, between the 1820s— 1840s, an ad-hoc clutch of volunteer firemen were needed to put out fires. In periods of cold weather, men of this era wore buffalo hide coats, and there were often large crowds, eagerly watching the volunteers hosing down the fires. Buff came from splicing the Middle French word buffe meaning buffalo which had already gone out of fashion somewhere in the 18th century, but had been used even as far back as the 16th and 17th century to refer directly to the skin or hide. Back then, to “be in the buff” meant to be in the army as soldiers wore coats made of hide. The term “buff” naked also owes its heritage to this association of animal skin.
While the pejorative sense of the word “buff” has all but dissipated, the term itself has become dated. You’re more likely to hear somebody say that so-and-so is a stamp geek or a wine wonk. You’re probably even more likely to hear somebody calling that aforementioned stamp geek, a philatelist, and the wine geek, an enophile. That’s because we love to name names if I might snag that Seinfeld line. Not that there’s anything wrong with calling somebody a geek now. In fact, many wine wonks I spend time with sort of relish the moniker. I’m not even sure if I deserve it myself with all the MWs loping around these days.
Now back to the “buff” you were thinking about. That hunky “buff” became a fixture in the 1980s when everybody was “getting physical”. It’s a spinoff of the verb “buff” meaning to polish metals. Even that “buff” seems dated, but less so than the smartypants type.
There you have it. Just indulge me in one last thought. Consider it a homework assignment or a little harmless fun to have at the gym. Watch the musclehead flexing as he curls in front the mirror at Blink. Could he be a buff geek or a buff wonk? If your trainer poses that question as you’re heaving a medicine ball then you just tell him or her that it’s too superfluous to think about anyway.