Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

It’s time to explore another English idiom that many people often get wrong. Just as someone might refer to a “mother load” when they really mean to say “mother lode” instead, it is surprisingly common to hear people talking about nipping something in the “butt” when the correct idiom is to “nip it in the bud.”

As with so many other English idioms, it is worthwhile to discuss the fundamental elements or origin of this phrase. To nip something in the bud is to prevent it from developing into something larger, stopping its growth shortly after it has begun. This is usually in the context of some sort of issue or problem.

For example, let’s say that a celebrity goes through a bad breakup and the now ex-girlfriend is threatening to go public with all the terrible details of their relationship. If this celebrity wants to “nip it in the bud,” he will come to some sort of agreement with his ex and the story may never make it to press. If he doesn’t “nip it in the bud,” then the nasty breakup could blossom into a full blown celebrity sex scandal.

This can be best understood based on the botanical origins of “nip it in the bud.” The idea here is that you literally cut (“nip”) the bud on a plant before the bud completely blossoms into a flower. It’s a preventative measure that is taken very early on in the development of the flower in a literal sense and the problem in the figurative sense.

By contrast, getting nipped in the “butt” is not for the faint of heart. I’d imagine that getting chomped on the buttocks is not how you would prevent further action, but is rather how you could spur further action. I’m sure Forrest Gump would agree after he “felt like something just jumped up and bit” him.

So yes, if your putting an end to a small problem before it develops into a much larger problem, you’re nipping in the bud, not in the butt.