buff

1
[ buhf ]
/ bʌf /

noun

adjective

verb (used with object)

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Origin of buff

1
1545–55; 1900–05 for def 4; earlier buffe wild ox, back formation from buffle < Middle French < Late Latin būfalus; see buffalo; (def 4) originally a person enthusiastic about firefighting and firefighters, allegedly after the buff uniforms once worn by volunteer firefighters in New York City

OTHER WORDS FROM buff

buff·a·bil·i·ty, nounbuff·a·ble, adjective

Definition for buff (2 of 4)

buff2
[ buhf ]
/ bʌf /

verb (used with object)

to reduce or deaden the force of; act as a buffer.

noun

Chiefly British Dialect. a blow; slap.

Origin of buff

2
1375–1425; late Middle English buffe, back formation from buffet1

Definition for buff (3 of 4)

buff3
[ buhf ]
/ bʌf /

noun

Definition for buff (4 of 4)

buffe

or buff

[ buhf ]
/ bʌf /

noun Armor.

plate armor for the lower part of the face and the throat, used with a burgonet.

Origin of buffe

1590–1600; < Middle French < Italian buffa, probably special use of buffa puff of breath, hard breath; see buffoon
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

ABOUT THIS WORD

What else does buff mean?

Buff originally refers to light-yellow leather made from buffalo skins. It has taken on many slang terms, though, including:

  • being naked
  • shining up something
  • being muscular and fit
  • being particularly knowledgeable about something
  • and, in gaming lingo, strengthening a player’s stats.

Where does buff come from?

Before we get into all the different things buff can mean as a slang term, it’s helpful to go all the way back to the beginning. Buff, as you may have guessed, comes from buffalo. In the 1570s, buff leather referred to buffalo-skin leather, which is particularly thick and soft.

By the early 1600s, buff came to refer to nudity (as in in the buff) because of the association with naked (white) bodies and the creamy, light-yellow leather of buff.

In the 1800s, buff leather cloths were used to polish metals.

Buff became a verb by 1849 for polishing things to make them shiny and more attractive. It’s this sense of buff—”to polish and make attractive,” sometimes with actual oil—that people had in mind in the 1980s when they referred to someone who was physically fit as buff. This term was particularly applied to people who had big, bulging muscles (think Arnold Schwarzenegger) because, well, they look shiny and attractive.

Buff, for “strong and muscular,” is what gamers had in mind in the mid-1990s when they began to buff up their characters in role-playing games. Early references to buffing up players come from games like Ultima Online, where gamers would exchange tips on how to exploit rules to buff stats so their avatars would be harder, better, faster, stronger. The opposite of buffing a player is nerfing them (i.e., making them weaker, such as foam Nerf toy guns).

Finally, to understand how buff came to refer to someone with a particular interest and passion for something (like, say, a history buff), we have to go back to 1800s America. There weren’t standing fire departments in most cities, then, so instead, young men had to volunteer. These temporary firefighters became known in New York in the 1830s as fire buffs for the buff uniforms they wore.

By 1915, the term buff had spread to other domains to refer to an amateur enthusiast about anything, like a sports buff who can tell you the stats of every Pittsburgh Steeler dating back to the 1960s.

How is buff used in real life?

The meaning of buff varies widely depending on context.

While it sounds a bit dated these days (the expression is from the 1600s, after all), you can still refer to someone who is naked as being in the buff—usually with that specific phrasing. It’s a slightly more polite or humorous way to refer to nudity.

Whether you use an actual buff-leather cloth or not, polishing something to make it shine is still referred to as buffing it. Sometimes it’s modified with an intensifying up, as in to buff up something. This verb is transitive, so you’ll usually want to clarify what is being buffed (e.g., The choir boy buffed up his dress shoes).

Buff as an adjective usually refers to someone who is physically quite fit. It can also refer just generally to someone who is attractive, usually because of their physique, as in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is so buff.

In the gaming world, and especially MMORPGs, a buff player is one that has been improved in some way, either within the rules of the game, or not. You can cast a spell or use a potion to make your player buff—or you could use a cheat. You can also give a buff to someone else, as it’s said, meaning you give them an item to help them out.

Using buff for someone with a deep, if amateur, knowledge of a subject typically requires a description of what they’re interested in. There are history buffs, butterfly buffs, or fitness buffs.

More examples of buff:

“Nails should be one-eighth to one-quarter inch beyond the tip of the fingers. Buff or polish the nail.”
—Kathryn J. Volin, Buff and Polish, 2004

“In order to have a buff body, you must commit to a program that works.”
—Daryl Conant, Buff Daddy, 2011

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

Example sentences from the Web for buff

British Dictionary definitions for buff (1 of 3)

buff1
/ (bʌf) /

noun

  1. a soft thick flexible undyed leather made chiefly from the skins of buffalo, oxen, and elk
  2. (as modifier)a buff coat
  1. a dull yellow or yellowish-brown colour
  2. (as adjective)buff paint
Also called: buffer
  1. a cloth or pad of material used for polishing an object
  2. a flexible disc or wheel impregnated with a fine abrasive for polishing metals, etc, with a power tool
informal one's bare skin (esp in the phrase in the buff)

verb

to clean or polish (a metal, floor, shoes, etc) with a buff
to remove the grain surface of (a leather)

Word Origin for buff

C16: from Old French buffle, from Old Italian bufalo, from Late Latin būfalus buffalo

British Dictionary definitions for buff (2 of 3)

buff2
/ (bʌf) /

verb

(tr) to deaden the force of

noun

archaic a blow or buffet (now only in the phrase blind man's buff)

Word Origin for buff

C15: back formation from buffet ²

British Dictionary definitions for buff (3 of 3)

buff3
/ (bʌf) /

noun

informal an expert on or devotee of a given subjecta cheese buff

Word Origin for buff

C20: originally US: an enthusiastic fire watcher, from the buff-coloured uniforms worn by volunteer firemen in New York City
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Idioms and Phrases with buff

buff

see in the buff.

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.