Strange words

‘Strong winds and thick butt’: weather terms and childish humor

A few months ago, someone installed an extension to my browser which would sometimes display the word cloud as the word butt. Although I wondered why SoundCloud was suddenly called SoundButt, or why the printing system at my university was called PrintButt, it took a while for me to actually realize that something was wrong. I didn’t really pick up on it until I was using the BBC to check the weather, and the forecast said: Strong winds and thick butt. I had never felt more foreign in the UK.

I checked another weather forecast site which gave me the following:

butty

My first assumption, not having checked the weather forecast that often since coming to the UK, was that butty was some kind of a weather term here. After asking some Norwegian friends who did not have any more answers than myself (and a very awkward Google search), I asked a British coursemate, who replied that he had no idea what that was supposed to mean. My friend who installed the extension didn’t confess until I told him I was going to ask a whole group of British students at my department.

Obviously I didn’t just stop thinking about this. There are two things that I still think about even though it’s been months since I found out: 1) What are the linguistic reasons that one would think that butt could be a weather term? and 2) Why is butt just inherently a funny word?

The former question is slightly easier to answer than the latter. Butt comes from Old English *butt ‘end, small piece of land’. It has cognates in a lot of other Indo-European languages, as in French but/butte ‘but, mark’, Norwegian butt ‘stump, block’ or German butt ‘blunt, clumsy’. In the English language today the word either generally means ‘the end of an object’ or, you know, ‘butt’. The fact that butt can be used for an edge or a stump could explain why my brain thought this could have been a weather term: butty in the forecast could refer to the clouds being so large that the edges are blunt? It’s hard to tell what it could’ve meant if it had been a real weather term in English.

Answering the second question will require me to explain the end of the joke (or ‘butt’, if you will). There is some part of the word butt that is inherently funny to me. There was one time I was meeting with a friend of mine for the first time in person after only having spoken online before, and when sitting down to eat in a crowded restaurant, my friend said, “Oh no, there are so many people here, we can’t say bad words!”. To this I replied, “Oh, right, such as …”, and, looking at each other for a moment of silence, we both said simultaneously: “… butt.” Our friendship has been strong since then. There is something very silly about the word, which makes a great connection between two people laughing at the same childish joke. Changing cloud to butt is not necessarily funny, but just the fact that it exists is funny; the extension reflects some childish playfulness in its existence alone.

In addition to that, the extension does yield some great results. Here are a couple from a Gizmodo article:

butt appreciation

lonely butt

This change from cloud to butt is funny because of register or mood changes. The upper example is meant to be a serious appraisal of clouds, but with the new text it just seems silly. In the poem the mood goes from being pensive and lonely to just ridiculous. It is this mismatch, between the mood intended by the author of the original text, and what it ends up being, that creates such an amusing result.

Having now finally gotten the chance to write about this topic, I feel like I got some of the thoughts I had about this out of my system. The extension in essence shows how quickly we recognize register and mood, so that jokes like these can be understood almost immediately without us even thinking about it.

Okay, that’s enough for today. I do realize that the first real post of my blog is about butts. This is a good start.

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