Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Episode 168: Cute as a Button Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 168: Cute as a Button

Record Date: October 1, 2022

Air Date: October 5, 2022



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

Have you ever noticed, at least in the US, that people tend to look at things that are little and decide their diminutive size makes them automatically adorable. This ranges from bunnies to babies to miniature versions of objects like scissors and books. People love little things and there seems to be no reason other than we think those little things are Cute as a Button


Cute as a button is a simile. A simile is a phrase that uses the word like or the word as to compare one thing to another thing. And what does Cute as a Button mean? The short answer is that it means, “Really cute”.

User mm4 on Urban Dictionary provided the following description for cute as a button.


“Adorable, cute, charming, attractive, almost always with the connotation of being small, and therefore extra cute.”

End quote

They also provided the example


“a cute little white Bischon Frise named "Bamse" is as "cute as a button"”

End quote

This is the way most people use the phrase these days, so it’s a decent definition. gives us a little more.


“Also, cute as a bug's ear. Pretty or attractive in a dainty way, as in That baby is cute as a button. Cute originally was a shortening of acute, for “sharp-witted and clever,” but in the early 1800s it also took on its current meaning. Other than that buttons and bug's hearing organs can be small, there is no good explanation for these similes.” 

Babies don't just look cute, scientists find - Published 7 Jun 2016. University of Oxford - News & Events tab on website.

The data shows that definitions of cuteness should not be limited just to visual features but include positive infant sounds and smells. From an evolutionary standpoint, cuteness is a very potent protective mechanism that ensures survival for otherwise completely dependent infants. 

That definition is interesting, but it did bring up more questions for me.

Namely, where does cute as a bug’s ear come from? 

Also, I wanted to find out which phrase came first? And was it the button or the button quail? Was bright or cute first? 

We’ll get to the button quail theory. 

Christine Ammer in The Facts on File Dictionary of Clich├ęs, in the second edition in 2006 has this entry for "cute as a button":


“Daintily attractive. The word "cute" dates from the seventeenth century. It was originally an abbreviation of acute and had the same meaning: clever, shrewd, ingenious. In America, however, it came to be applied to attractive persons or things, those with an appearance of dainty cute objects. For some reason this simile took hold in the early twentieth century. The synonym cute as a bug's ear similarly alludes to something very small—and in fact nonexistent (bugs don't have ears).”

End Quote

Ammer is stating that "cute as a button" means "daintily attractive." Is that what "bright as a button" means in British English?

John Ayto, The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, third edition (2009) has this entry for "bright as a button":

bright as a button 

intelligently alert and lively. informal [Note:] There is a play here on bright in its Old English sense of 'shiny' (like a polished metal button) and bright in its transferred sense of 'quick-witted', found since the mid 18th century.

The 1785 work Fontainbleau by John O'Keeffe contains the phrase, 


“Her eyes are as bright as de polish of de Birmingham button.”

End quote 

In this instance, her eyes are bright in the shiny sense. Bright began being used to refer to intelligence or being quick-witted around this time as well, so the phrase was used in both manners. Bright as a button continues to be used throughout the next several centuries. One example of note occurs during a conversation between the Scarecrow and a lost little boy named Button-Bright in the 1904 book The Road to Oz by L. Frank Baum.


While they waited, the Scarecrow, who was near the little boy, asked:

"Why are you called Button-Bright?"

"Don't know," was the answer.

Oh yes, you do, dear," said Dorothy. "Tell the Scarecrow how you got your name."

"Papa always said I was bright as a button, so mamma always called me Button-Bright," announced the boy.

"Where is your mamma?" asked the Scarecrow.

"Don't know," said Button-Bright.

"Where is your home?" asked the Scarecrow.

"Don't know," said Button-Bright.

"Don't you want to find your mamma again?" asked the Scarecrow.

"Don't know," said Button-Bright, calmly.

The Scarecrow looked thoughtful.

"Your papa may have been right," he observed; "but there are many kinds of buttons, you see. There are silver and gold buttons, which are highly polished and glitter brightly. There are pearl and rubber buttons, and other kinds, with surfaces more or less bright. But there is still another sort of button which is covered with dull cloth, and that must be the sort your papa meant when he said you were bright as a button. Don't you think so?"

"Don't know," said Button-Bright.”

End quote

These are all from the United States. The earliest British English instance of "bright as a button" is from Rudyard Kipling, "Private Learoyd's Story" (1888). This means, it isn’t a British version of our phrase. So, new theory needed. 

While there could be some correlation between these in that the “as a button” part of the phrase was already in use, there isn't’ good evidence that cute as a button came from the phrase bright as a button. 

Other theories for its origin include this idea from blogger Robin Griggs Wood in the 2013 post “Cute as a Button” What the heck does that mean?

This blog indicates the original phrase was actually "cute as a button quail" and was just shortened over the years. I couldn’t find evidence of this, however button quails are quite adorable.

Here is another idea which gives us some etymological background on the words in the phrase. Beyond the etymology, the rest is more of a best guess.

The words cute and button both come to English from Latin by way of French. 

Button comes from the late Latin bottonem which became the French bouton and subsequently the English button. 

The word cute is a truncated form of acute, which means small (think acute angles in geometry). The precedent for acute is aigu and for aigu, acutus. 

A 2013 article in The Observer News states 


What does all of this mean? Well, it turns out that in addition to the meaning of small, aigu is often used in medical terminology to mean a condition that appears abruptly and needs urgent care, which is also true of the English acute. This seems irrelevant until you consider that bouton can refer to a pimple or spot. Finally, the term “cute as a button” is known to have arisen in the 1800s, a time when diseases like chicken pox, measles, mumps and the dreaded small pox threatened lives daily. Now, we bring it all together. In a time when chicken pox and other diseases ran rampant, a word recently derived from another word used for sudden symptoms and the need for urgent care and a word derived from another word used for dermatological spots find themselves in the same unexplainable colloquialism. To state what is by now obvious, “seeming as in need of medical care as someone with spots from chicken pox, measles, etc.” was the original meaning and proper usage of “cute as a button.”

End quote  

Again, I found no evidence of this. But it is an incredibly interesting idea. 

Let’s look at cute as a bug’s ear. Does this get us any answers? 

The first place we found the phrase "cute as a bug's ear" is from The Girl’s Own Annual in 1896

A version of the phrase 

The first time I found the phrase "cute as a button" was in a letter of Christmas shopping hints in Indiana Telephone News dated December 1, 1931.


I always can tell what the kids will like by the way George behaves. That man will never grow up! This year he had a fit over a little Coca-Cola truck (only 49c, imagine!) with ten miniature coca-cola bottles just as cute as a button, and a foolish little box of figures called Krazy Ikes for a dollar.

End quote

Evening star. [volume], November 25, 1945, Image 104 

Kodiak mirror. [volume], July 15, 1950, Page 12, Image 12

About Kodiak mirror. [volume] (Kodiak, Alaska) 1940-1976 

To recap, the phrases appear in this order: 

"bright as a button" 1805

"cute as a bug's ear" 1896

"cute as a button" 1920ish, 

"Bright as a button" is just under a century older than the others, and "cute as a bug's ear" is about 25 years older than "cute as a button."

We’ll get to our modern examples, right after we take a moment to say thank you to our sponsors. 

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

You can help support this educational artform and get awesome perks along the way! Tiers start at $3 a month, which get you our polls and community-only discussions, early access to the podcast, and the behind the scenes video for each episode so you can watch along as we make the show. 

At $10 you’ll also get original digital artwork from Shauna once a month featuring exclusive art about an idiom or other turn of phrase. At $15, you’ll also get personal on-air recognition like Pat Rowe does every episode. And of course huge thanks goes to the top spot among our Patrons, our Dean of Learning, Mary Halsig-Lopez. Thank you so much to Mary and all of our patrons. 

If you want to help create Bunny Trails week after week, whatever your budget, we are bunnytrailspod on Patreon. 


Modern Uses

Who wins the award for most cheesy pick-up lines in one song? 

Artist: Stephen Jerzak

Album: Peace.Love.Truth -EP

Released: 2009

Genres: R&B/Soul, Pop

The song Cute as a Button includes these lyrics


Your eyes are blue like the ocean

And baby I'm lost out at sea

Did the sun just come out or did you smile at me

I've been trying to ask you but I can't seem to speak

Was it love at first sight 'cause I walked by last week

I'm singing Fa la la la la

Your lips look so lonely

Would they like to meet mine

You are the one that I've been hoping to find

You're so sweet that you

Put Hersheys out of business

Can I have a photograph to show my friends that

Angels truly exist

I'm singing Fa la la la la

You're as cute as a button

The things you do sure are something

Are you running out of breath

From running through my head all night

End quote 

The book Cute as a Button by Author Carrie Hennon, and Illustrator Gareth Llewhellin was published January 1, 2018 by Little Hippo Books. It is described as a Children's Padded Board Book.

It looks cute. There is an image of a little kid on the cover surrounded by different colored buttons and holding two in their hands. Just a cute kid and some buttons. The summary reads


A heartwarming story about an older sibling struggling to understand a grown-up's description of his new baby sister.

End quote 

Next we have the 2021 Board Game - Munchkin Dungeon: Cute as a Button

Here is the game description.


"Just wook at da widdle evil beasties! SO CUTE!! Sure, they’re going to munch your face off, but they’re JUST SO ADORABLE!! Who could possibly complain when CuteZilla roasts them alive? It would take an outright psychopath bent on nothing but slaughter and Loot to even think about raising a blade against these PRETTY LITTLE HORRORS!! Hey… doesn’t “psychopaths bent on slaughter and Loot” describe most adventuring parties?"

End quote 

Next up is an accessory store called Cute As A Button. From their website, 


Do you have an outfit that's bomb AF and looking to take it to the next level? Or maybe you are looking  for ways to promote your business or an event in a fashionable yet inexpensive way. Whichever it is, Cute As A Button has you covered.  

Cute As A Button offers unique accessories that will make you turn heads and become someones WCW, any day of the week! 

We believe in ballin' on a budget so let us help you become a “Cutie” without breaking the bank! 

No need to look any further because you are in the right place! We are officially #theaccessoryplug. 

End quote 

Wrap Up

I love this expression. I fall heavily in the camp of those who think that tiny things are adorable. And in fact, I think this phrase is adorable. Cute as a button? It’s just cute. The idea of cuteness is one of those ineffable things - it defies description. We don’t know why things are cute; we just know that they are. And anything describing what cute is wouldn’t be helpful. So instead we’ll just say how adorable things are by comparing them to inanimate objects that are usually little and therefore also somehow cute? Now I’m not certain if the phrase makes buttons cuter or if the button helps explain what cute is… but I’ll keep using it because I’ll never quit finding things and thinking they are as cute as a button. 


That’s all we have time for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


Poll time! 

In a recent poll, we asked Patrons, 

What are your favorite hot drinks?

We listed many drinks that are served hot in different parts of the world. 

Tea came in at number 1, followed by coffee, alcoholic drinks, and juices

Jan said


A good cider in the fall and hot tea any time. Chai, Earl Grey, English/Irish Breakfast, and Jasmine Black are my favorites.

End Quote

Emily chimed in with


I like nice fruity herbal teas. However, I don’t live in a very cold climate, so I don’t have them often. 

End Quote

Mary added

Coffee gets made every morning. Tea most evenings. 

And JGP commented on one of the options that none of our Patrons selected


I had to google atole but now I'm really curious to try it, although I think I'll wait until winter to give it a go.

End Quote

If you are unfamiliar, Atole is a popular drink in Mexico. It is made by steeping brown sugar cane and cinnamon in water, then thickening with corn flour, and adding milk until creamy. 

If you want to take part in our silly polls and sometimes learn new things while you’re at it, head over to to see what we have this week!



Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember, 


Words belong to their users. 

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