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Last updated at 15:05 BST, Tuesday, 05 May 2009



Jim Pettiward explains the origin, meaning and use of the word 'buff' and some of its colloquial synonyms. Click below to listen:


Buff – B-U-F-F. ‘That new girl in our class is well buff’. This is an adjective which, in youth slang, means attractive or well-toned. Somebody who is buff has an attractive body, they look ‘fit’.

I guess one of the difficult things for anyone trying to learn English, and trying to keep up with the latest vocabulary, is the fact that some words seem to have so many different, and totally unrelated meanings. How on earth are they supposed to know which is the correct meaning?

Well, of course, context is important. By looking at the context in which you see or hear the word, you should be able to work out which meaning is most likely when you look it up. ‘Buff’ is one of those words which has several meanings and whose latest meaning may not be in your dictionary at all.

As a noun it is often used to describe a person who is really into a particular hobby or pastime. It’s usually combined with the word describing the hobby, so a film buff is someone who really loves film and probably knows quite a lot about it. The word buff here implies an enthusiastic or almost obsessional interest in something.

As a verb ‘to buff’ means to polish or shine something with a cloth, to give something a shiny finish. This meaning is said to come from the word buffalo, an animal whose skin was used for leather and this leather was in turn often used to polish metal objects. From there came the adjective ‘buff’ meaning a dull yellow colour, the colour of the buffalo leather.

And more recently, as an adjective it has come to mean ‘attractive’ or ‘fit’. It’s not exactly clear why. Perhaps because a well-toned, tanned, fit person may look buff, like they’ve just been ‘buffed’, so they have a kind of ‘polished’ look.

There is one last expression with ‘buff’ which you should probably know, and that is ‘in the buff’ – it means naked, with no clothes on. This might be because the original meaning of buff referred to leather or skin so ‘in the buff’ means just in our skin.

Anyway, at least now if you see a ‘buff buff buffing in the buff’ you’ll know what it means!

About Jim Pettiward

Jim Pettiward

Jim Pettiward has a BA (hons) in French and Spanish, CTEFLA and Trinity TESOL Diploma. He has taught EFL, EAP, ESP and Business English in Ecuador, Venezuela, Hungary and the UK. He has also worked as an ICT trainer for the British Council and the University of the Arts, London. He is currently teaching English for Academic Purposes in the Department of Humanities, Arts, Languages and Education at London Metropolitan University.


Series 5

13 talks about new and changing words and expressions by Jim Pettiward