Cute as a button
Christian Myers | Sunday, March 24, 2013
If you take a step back and think for a second about the expression “cute as a button,” you’ll probably end up thinking to yourself, “What does that even mean?” The obvious reply is: “Nobody knows what it means, but it’s provocative.” True, very true, but what if we dig a little deeper?
Don’t worry. I did the digging for you. After exhaustive research, I’m prepared to share the true origins of the phrase “cute as a button” with the Notre Dame community.
First, both the words cute and button come to English from Latin by way of French.
The etymology of button is as follows: late Latin bottonem became the French bouton and subsequently the English button.
The word cute is an abbreviated form of acute, which means small (you may remember something of acute angles in geometry). So, the sources of cute and acute are the same. The precedent for acute is aigu and for aigu, acutus.
What does all of this mean? Well, it turns out that in addition to the meaning of small, aigu is often used in medical terminology to mean a condition that appears abruptly and needs urgent care, which is also true of the English acute. This seems irrelevant until you consider that bouton can refer to a pimple or spot.
Finally, the term “cute as a button” is known to have arisen in the 1800s, a time when diseases like chicken pox, measles, mumps and the dreaded small pox threatened lives daily.
Now, we bring it all together. In a time when chicken pox and other diseases ran rampant, a word recently derived from another word used for sudden symptoms and the need for urgent care and a word derived from another word used for dermatological spots find themselves in the same unexplainable colloquialism.
To state what is by now obvious, “seeming as in need of medical care as someone with spots from chicken pox, measles, etc.” was the original meaning and proper usage of “cute as a button.”
For example, a common 19th century encounter may have gone something like this: “Good day Bartholomew! Your complexion is quite robust this morning, much like our impeccable attire.” “Thank you, Reginald, and a good day to you as well! Unfortunately, I would have to say you look positively as cute as a button!” “Heavens. Do you believe I should locate the nearest apothecary?” “Please do. In fact, I shall accompany you forthwith.”
So, don’t think the next person who says you are “cute as a button” actually thinks buttons are cute. With the exception of one Ryan Hall resident, nobody thinks that. You should, however, confirm the person speaking to you is a medical professional before taking their advice and going to St. Liam’s.