The phrases nip it in the bud and nip it in the butt bring very different images to mind (one being more than a little painful). But only one is correct — and you may have been saying it wrong your whole life.
The correct wording is nip it in the bud, an idiom meaning “to stop a problem before it gets bigger.”
It comes from the gardening term that refers to pinching or clipping some of a plant’s buds to control the way it grows.
Similarly, when we stop a problem from growing too big to manage, we’re figuratively nipping it in the bud.
- Let’s discuss this issue right now and nip it in the bud.
- My toddler is getting cranky, so let’s nip this in the bud and put him down for his nap now.
- When the company heard about the upcoming worker protest, they nipped it in the bud by negotiating with the workers.
- My puppy barks at other dogs, so I try to nip it in the bud by having them sniff each other first.
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So why do people say “nip it in the butt?” Probably because bud sounds a lot like butt, and butt is fun to say — after all, people tend to prefer the more recent butt naked to the traditional buck naked.
Nip it in the butt is an eggcorn, which sounds correct but doesn’t look right when written down. And unless you're an angry little dog, you're probably not nipping too many butts.
Some people even say nix it in the bud (or butt) because nix means “to put an end to something,” which has a very similar definition to the original idiom.
But if you prefer nix, don’t add the bud — nix can stand on its own.
Nip it in the bud first appeared as an idiom in 1595.
Henry Chettle used the similar nip it in the bloom (same meaning) in his romance Piers Plainnes Seaven Yeres Prentiship to describe stopping romantic affections before they get out of hand.
"Extinguish these fond loues with minds labour, and nip thy affections in the bloome, that they may neuer bee of power to budde."
A few years later, nip it in the bud appeared in Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Woman Hater (interestingly, also as a way to stop someone’s romantic passion).
"Yet I can frowne and nip a passion Euen in the bud."
We use nip it in the bud in pretty much the same way today. Like these authors, we can replace it with the thing we want to stop, whether it's romantic affections or any other troublesome possibility.
Nip it in the bud is pretty easy to trace back to the centuries-old practice of stopping a bud before it develops into a flower or fruit. But many idioms, known as dead metaphors, have veered away from their original meanings.
Just consider cold feet (an old poker saying). We still use it today, but not with a connection to its original meaning.
If nip it in the bud just doesn’t make sense to you (or you still prefer butt), try out these idioms with similar meanings:
- bring to a standstill
- get out while the going’s good
- knock out
- put out a fire
- put a kibosh on something
- put it on the back burner
- stop it in its tracks
Want to say the same thing without resorting to idioms or cliches? Use these impressive words instead:
- abey - to suspend or pause
- abrogate - to formally cancel or do away with
- cessate - to stop or end
- extirpate - to completely destroy
- quash - to put an end to
- renege - to go back on a deal or agreement
- vitiate - to invalidate
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