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  • Paul Anthony Jones

To make buttons

(phr.) to be absolutely terrified

Sheep in a muddy field, origin of to make buttons

What is it about HH and poop? It comes up so often on this blog we’ve had to add it to the hashtag list. And then, as regular (no pun intended) as clockwork, along comes this:

Yes, sheep poop was once known as buttons, and making buttons is an equally old-fashioned way of saying that you’re terrified. But so bizarre is this fact that it sparked quite a few comments over on Twitter questioning whether this could ever possibly, actually, be true. Hence, the awful job now falls to HH to confirm, yes, it really is. And, for that matter, it has been true for quite some time.

In fact as a nickname for sheep (or goat, or rabbit) droppings, buttons is slightly older than we gave it credit for in our tweet: the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary has unearthed a record of buttons being used in this sense dating from as far back as 1684. Etymologically (as you have probably already guessed) this is all an allusive reference to the, er, characteristic appearance of the droppings themselves, which—as the OED also neatly explains—are “typically ... small and rounded in shape.” Like buttons.

The expression to make buttons has been reported even earlier, with the OED’s earliest record likewise unearthed in the script to an anonymous Elizabethan comedy called Jack Juggler (c. 1565). As a fight brews on stage, and one of the combatants begins to “strike up his sleves” in readiness for the brawl, the eponymous Jack none too subtly comments that “his arse makith buttens now.” Happily, the OED is again on hand to point out that this line is likely a reference to what it calls “an act of involuntary defecation”. Lexicographers really can make anything sound classy, can’t they?

So. Long and fairly unpleasant story short, yes, this is an entirely genuine turn of phrase, with quite a considerable history behind it. Whether you think it’s one that needs reviving is, of course, is another matter.


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