By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word ‘naked’ is so well-known, so familiar to us, that it’s easy to overlook its strangeness. It rhymes with no other word in English, and looks like a weird hybrid or cross between a verb and an adjective. How did the word naked come about, and what are its origins?
Let’s strip the word ‘naked’ naked, and explore its curious history.
The word naked goes back a long way: over a thousand years, in fact. The Old English word nacod was used in pre-Norman times to refer to something (or someone) who was either completely nude or who was not, at least, fully clothed.
This word is cognate with words in other northern European languages: in the Old Frisian nakad, the Old Norse nökkviðr, the Dutch naakt, and the German nackt, among others. In all cases, the word is used with the same meaning: nude, bare, unclothed – or, if you prefer, naked.
Ultimately, the origins of our modern English word naked are to be found even farther back in the mists of time. A Proto-Indo-European root word, nogw-, also gave us words as different in appearance as the Sanskrit nagna, the Greek gymnos, and the Latin nudus, this last being the source of a synonym for naked, ‘nude’. This means that both naked and nude came, ultimately, from the same Proto-Indo-European root.
And yes, while we’re at it: the ancient Greek gymnos gave us the word gymnasium, because the original idea was to exercise naked in such a place. Gymnastics is from the same root.
Indeed, even if we stick to the word naked itself we find that its meaning has, historically speaking, not always been straightforward. For a long time it meant ‘wearing nothing except one’s undergarments’, an idea which is preserved in some of the modifying adjectives that are often used to emphasise full nakedness: e.g., stark naked.
Curiously, the phrase stark naked originated as a corruption, or perhaps a mishearing, of an existing phrase: start naked. Of course, if something is stark it is revealed, uncovered, bare, and plain for all to see, so it makes sense why these two adjectives should be associated with each other in this way.
We know that start naked was the earlier phrase of the two because it was derived from the Old English steort, meaning ‘tail’. The phrase start naked thus meant ‘naked to the tail’, i.e. the buttocks: the medieval equivalent of the altogether more recent butt naked.
And as we mentioned that one, butt naked has been attested since 1959, although it remains most common in North America; stark naked is undoubtedly still more common in Britain, although the slang term ‘starkers’ for naked is perhaps slightly less so. (‘Starkers’ is first recorded in 1923.)
It didn’t take long for the adjective naked to spawn a verb, to nake, meaning ‘to strip (something) bare’ or, if you will, ‘to make naked’. This is an example of a back-formation in that the verb was formed from the -ed adjective, rather than the other way around: naked gave us nake, rather than an existing verb nake giving us the adjective (naked).