Button, Cute as a

And the syrup traps fleas!

Dear Word Detective:  I recently told a friend from Venezuela that she was “cute as a button.” Not being a native English speaker, she asked me to explain. She asked if I was talking about a flower, a clothing button, or something else. After extensive Google research, I am still at a loss. Can you please help? — Allison Sagehorn.

I’ll give it a shot.  Had I been in your position, however, I’d have stuck with a more obvious figure of speech, such as “cute as a bug’s ear” or the ever-popular “cute as a pancake on a cat.”  (Think I’m kidding?  Google “pancake on cat.”)  There’s actually a whole range of “cute as …” sayings in American folk speech, including the rather more boring “cute as a puppy” (and “as a kitten”), but including some oddities like “cute as a needle” and “cute as a weasel.”  As Michael Quinion (www.wordwidewords.org) points out in his article on “cute as a bug’s ear,” some “cute as” locutions (such as “weasel” and “needle” above) actually employ the original sense of “cute” meaning “sharp or clever,” the word “cute” itself being a clipped form of “acute.”

“Cute as a bug’s ear,” incidentally, assumes that bugs’ ears are very small, and therefore cute (since small things are considered cute), although bugs do not actually possess ears of any size.  So you all can stop shouting at bugs now.

The word “button” arrived in English in the 14th century, adapted from the Old French “bouton,” which was in turn derived from Latin roots with the general sense of “push or thrust” (and which also gave us “butt” in the sense of “to ram with one’s head”).  “Button” has acquired a wide variety of meanings in its time, from the small disk or knob used in fastenings on clothing to the buds on a young plant to the metaphorical “big red button” that might launch a nuclear war, all with the sense of something sticking up or thrusting through.  About the only thing all the various sorts of “buttons” out there have in common is that they are usually round and, most often, relatively small.

“Button” has also spawned a number of slang phrases and metaphors.  We speak of being somewhere at a certain time “on the button,” a reference to the small round dot at the center of a target.  To “push someone’s buttons” means to agitate or anger the person  (e.g., by bringing up a sensitive subject), and to “button up” means the opposite, to remain silent.  But when we really have something to say, we might “buttonhole” a friend, meaning to forcefully detain a person in conversation.  Interestingly, the original form of “buttonhole” was, in the early 19th century, “button-hold,” and it meant to literally grab hold of a button on someone’s coat in order to keep the person from walking away while you were speaking.  “Button-hold” became “buttonhole” (since “buttonhole” was already an established and familiar term) in the 1860s.

None of these “buttons,” as you may have noticed, could plausibly be described as “cute,” which brings us back to where we began.  The button in “cute as a button” almost certainly doesn’t refer to the button on a shirt or dress, or to the mechanical buttons that we obediently push every day.  The sort of “button” that might reasonably be considered “cute” is the “button,” or bud, on a young plant, especially one about to bloom for the first time.  Applied to a child, as it often is, “cute as a button” thus conveys not only smallness and cuteness, but youth and promise as well.

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