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.