Why do American parents call their kids “buddy?”

I am stuck in meetings all day, but I do have an anthropological question for you to feast on.

This weekend there were lots of people out to enjoy the glorious fall weather in my little town. And on several occasions, I heard parents call their kids "buddy."

"That’s weird," I thought to myself.  Nobody ever called me buddy as a kid.  (As I recall my Dad called me "Chief."  Quite odd all on its own.)

So the question is:

When did this start?

What does it mean?

Why THIS term of endearment…when there are so many to choose from?  I think we can be certain the English parents wouldn’t dream of using this term.  And there was a time when American parents didn’t dream of it either.

And what does it tells us about changing practices in American child rearing?

And what does THAT tells us about the changing state of American culture?

I guess that’s five questions.

Please, start your engines.

post script:

This post was supposed to go up yesterday.  But I must have done something wrong with the WordPress "publish on" feature.  The image I know is odd.  It’s a partial picture of a scooter I found parked in a garage in New York City last night, proof I guess that this naming convention goes beyond kids even to inanimate objects. 

50 thoughts on “Why do American parents call their kids “buddy?””

  1. I’d agree that this would be extremely rare in a middle-class English family, but there are working-class communities where I’ve heard this quite commonly in the English East Midlands.

    In Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, Philip’s father calls him “buddy, old bud” That, I assume, comes from Potters upbringing in the Forest of Dean.

  2. Is it because of the increasingly influential cult of youth that leads parents to want their children to regard them as friends and equals (and by implication still young) rather than “old” authority figures.

    1. Andrew, that sounds right, it’s another way of saying ‘I am a modern parent who doesn’t pull rank on their kids.” And I would be interesting if it lead to a situation in which the parent attempts to close distance and the child with more formal forms of address attempts to open it up. Thanks, Grant

  3. I put this to a language sleuth (one of the principal players on the excellent language log). She notes the origin of the term has at least two pathways. One is the OED citation which suggests a variation on “butty” as an English dialect form of brother. The roots are a corruption of booty and the 19th century meaning may have been a friend who you share the proceeds of some form of enterprise -perhaps an illegal one – early on. Another path is from 19th century African American dialect meaning someone who you need to talk to, but don’t know their name.

    How this percolates down into the present is, of course, your question and she has no theories on that.

    1. Steve, pls thank the sleuth for me, that first meaning is very interesting and works nicely to encourage Andrew’s notion that this term of endearment is doesn’t to erase status difference. Thanks, (Great to see you yesterday) Grant

  4. i believe it’s an artifact of the progressive flattening of the parent/child hierarchy. it is very common, now, for young children to address adults by their first names rather than the traditional mr. or mrs.–a practice that was nearly unthinkable when we were children. this is not to suggest that we’re ultimately headed toward a peer-to-peer relationship with our young kids (parent’s benevolent dictatorships over their minor children is well preserved) but it does suggest that the protestation “you’re not the boss of me” is more of an omen and less a simple example of juvenile petulance.

  5. Not to back step from the great and obviously learned comments above, but if we agree America watches an inordinate amount of TV then would the Gilligan’s Island impact of the Captain calling Gilligan Buddy have influence? That was the first time I heard it. I am now a GP amd my kids do it. I think? (I do not remember calling my kids that BTW. Lots of other things NSFW mind you!)

    1. Mose, fantastic, the cultural forensics continue. And in the Gilligan’s Island case, buddy works to emphasize structural difference. Gilligan as child to the Captain’s parent. Maybe Gilligan’s Island is the “forge” in which the term is fashioned as something that marks a milder form of status difference than the one imposed by “father”/”son”. Excellent. Thanks

  6. My dad called me buddy as a kid and I would not say that it was because he was trying to be progressive or was wrapped up in the cult of youth. It was quite simply that at a very young age (around 3 or 4) I asked him one day if he would, “be my buddy.” I looked up to him (and still do). I call my son buddy partly out of reflex but also because he is, in a sense, a sidekick. Do I want to enjoy my time with him? Yes? Do I know that as he gets older I’m going to have to be his parent? Yes.

    I suspect that parents call their kids all sorts of seemingly odd terms of endearment. I think there is less to read into that than there likely is in the behavior between parents and children.

  7. I don’t think it expresses a flattened status hierarchy – especially since I have heard different types of parents using different style use it. More simply might be, how it replaces ‘baby’ with a similar number and sounding phonemes. Allowing one’s child to grow up, much as they switch from mommy to mom, allowing themselves to grow up.

    Gilligan’s Island is older than me (anyone remember that the Captain had a restaurant, might have been Long Beach area?) so I have heard buddy all of my life.

    While on this topic, how about ‘dude’? Now that is a status eraser, yet always taken jocularly…

  8. I have an actor friend in LA who said he knew he was in trouble when his (then) new agent called him ‘buddy’ when he called him. The previous agent called him Michael, which at least showed a commitment to learning the client’s name.

    Reminds me of the ubiquitous use of “sweetie” in Hollywood circles. The person using the appellation offers faux affection in exchange for actual familiarity.

    Not sure where the British, mostly working class (I noticed this while living in Southeast London) habit of calling everyone ‘love’ fits in. Does it signal being one of the community? It did not seem to happen on the north side of the Thames.

    1. Leora, Ah! thanks love :)

      Um.. that reminds me that earlier I was getting too hung up on the specific word “buddy” The word more likely to be used here is “mate” My father would never call me (or anyone, probably) “mate” but it’s very common countrywide in working-class households (used by fathers and mothers alike)

      Mate has a connotation of apprentice or junior assistant – as in a plumber’s mate. And “buddy” get used here in that context in offices – new recruits being allocated a “buddy” to show them the ropes – I’d assumed that was an import from the US.

    2. Leora, guilty as charged, I have once or twice called people “dude” because I had no idea what their names were. And in the US too, we all love those cafes were the pie is excellent but the real value add of the occasion is that the waitress calls you “hun.”

  9. Growing up, my parents were fond of saying, “I’m not here to be your friend.”.

    I have my own children now and often observe other parents my age(I was born in ’76) addressing their children as buddy and even dressing them exactly like themselves.

    We desperately want our children to like us because that is what we wanted. Calling them buddy is like saying, “You’re like me, we’re just pals here, right?”. The ironic thing is, by overemphasizing our “friendliness”, for lack of a better term, we will probably end up alienating them. The rebellion of youth is inevitable whether we consider them our buddy or not.

  10. Being a 23-year-old college student, I use additional phrases like: dude, man, buddy, sport and boo interchangeably all the time. They don’t mean anything specific in my mind. I feel they are phrases that help me create a closer connection. It again is a way of showing adoration or friendliness. Sometimes I do vary the phrases I use. I don’t think my professor would like it if I referred to him by the name boo. Also, I use these phrases because they are fun and lighthearted. They help define me as a person, and probably reveal how I feel towards that person.

    Therefore, I feel that buddy is just another way of showing affection and creating a personalized connection. My dad still calls me sport.

    I don’t know if I quite answered the question fully, but I did give my perspective.

    1. Anthony,
      You are the only person that I think so far has hit the nail on the head. Everyone seems to be over analyzing this ‘Buddy’ thing and you are correct. It is a term of endearment, a way to show your affection towards another. There is much more to raising a child than whether you call them buddy, pal, sport, chief, etc and unless you are using derogatory names that is a different story all together. With that being said buddy is just a ‘word’ and not one that I, or most people, believe would affect a child negatively because his parents called him that.
      I personally love the term, buddy, and use it with my own 6 yr old son. And, by the way, he knows whose boss whether I call him buddy or call him by his name :)
      There are so many other things we can concern our selves with in a productive way so let’s go do that!
      Blessing to all…

  11. While I would trust others here with the various theories on etymology, in general I would say it’s used as means of endearment but depending on who’s delivering and how it’s said can drastically change its meaning or intention.

    This is very similar to your notion of questioning when “really” became a means of accusation.

    If someone who I deem close say’s “hey buddy, what’s up?” it’s a whole lot different then when the used car salesmen says it.

    The Microsoft “Really” ad demonstrates something that I think is somewhat unique to American culture/language where we quite literally can change what a word means on a dime probably 20 different ways.

    Other words as you mentioned are “Dude” and “Seriously”. Bud Light demonstrates the notion of “Dude” here… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xBQHA7ZKU4

  12. Like your comment Scott. I think the term ‘buddy’ diminishes the intimacy of the parent/child relationship ,,I’d step in front of a bus for my kids, and sure wouldn’t so that for a buddy,,maybe not even my spouse,,

  13. Street corner ethnography – overheard a man talking about this yesterday at my son’s school. The context was, he was waiting for his other kids with his youngest son, a preschooler, and a newborn baby girl in a stroller. Another mom had asked his son how he liked having a baby sister after three boys, and in the course of this the dad said he had thought he would have all boys, and that he had “caught myself calling her buddy the other day, and had to stop myself.”

    So, clearly gendered, which is something I don’t think we noted so far.

    1. Anthrodiva, great spot, no, we haven’t seen the genderedness. And in that regard, I think when mature males use buddy as a term of endearment, they are both demonstrating affection and marking the limit of their affection. It’s like Sahlins’ notion of a certain kind of reciprocity, the kind that creates a link even as it asserts the difference, the separateness of the parties being linked. And if this logic extends to childhood, well, something really weird is going on. Mind you when my father called my chief and scout, he was using the language of the Western (genre) and that’s even weirder. Thanks, Grant

      1. I think Sahlins is probably a good call. One piece of data that is missing however, is, till what age did your dad call your Chief?

        Also, I know that I, and others of my acquaintance, call our male pets ‘buddy’. So, pets and kids share the same status linguistically?

        1. Good question. And are pets gendered too in this regard. So I think I can see calling a dog buddy but not really a cat. And the larger and sturdier the dog, the more likely I am to use buddy. At least here, buddy is a little patronizing, as in “you great big loveable dope.” I speak of course as a cat person, for whom patronizing is never an option, unless it’s the cat patronizing me, which I suspect happens more often than I know. From Zsa Zsa’s point of view, I am a great big, sometimes loveable, dope.

  14. I miss having these kinds of conversations with an old friend.

    Personal observations: I would never call my husband or an adult “Buddy”. I am more likely to call my sons “Buddy” than my daughter, but I will sometimes call her that when I am trying to console her (“it’s OK Buddy”) or encourage her to do something she is resistant to do, (“Come on Buddy”). With my sons, I also use it as a greeting after school…”Hey Buddy”. It is almost a question testing the waters to see how they are feeling. It feels like a buffer of some sort. If I said “Hey Max?” it would be too direct a question. The “Buddy” infers concern and support but allows room for either of us to choose how much information we want to share at that moment.

    I will often use the same greeting with my children’s friends of both genders but more often with the kids I am familiar with. It is definitely meant as a term of endearment. I would say it to console any child. Especially one I didn’t know. I am aware it is a term I use much more with younger kids, say under twelve, than I do as they get towards their teens. The younger they are, the more often I say it.

    I use it with both of my dogs, male and female, when I am trying to show concern or affection…as if they understand…..I would only say it to comfort an injured or scared cat.

    To summarize then: I use it when I want to form trust. Buddy is a non threatening term that I use to show friendship rather than authority. I don’t use it when I’m angry. The more feminine the entity it is directed at, the less likely I am to use it. It is age sensitive.

    “Dude” is completely different. I only use it with boys and I say it when I want to appear “cool”. There is no trust infered. Very embarrassing in retrospect.

  15. I am not a native speaker – so perhaps I am completely missing something – but I think that both ‘chief’ and ‘buddy’ is the same thing and it is about playing out something that obviously is not true. In Polish I did encounter calling very little children ‘boss’ (or rather szef, which in Polish is more friendly then boss) – I think it’s entertainment value is understandable for everyone.

  16. Some interesting thoughts here. I’m 49, and my sons are now both in college. I called both of them “buddy” and “bud” while growing up and still do on occasion — but I never pretended we were buddies. I tend to use endearments with loved ones, and bud arrived unbidden as something to use for variety’s sake. I also use “son” a lot, which they counter by calling me “father.” “Dude” became a shared joke, mostly when they used it: “Dude, can I–” “Dad. It’s pronounced Dad.”

    Chief, boss, tiger, and pal sound more like things a distant uncle says, but I’ll bet they’re completely natural for someone else. (In fact, a friend — mid-30s, an Iranian raised in London — calls me “chief” often.)

    A former colleague, now retired, is named Bud. He is perhaps 75, and he told me his father called him Bud at a young age, and it stuck. He never goes by his true first name.

    All of which is just to say I’m not sure there’s a trend here of “I’m not your father, I’m your friend” parenting. “Bud” is just a happy word with soft edges.

  17. It’s a term of endearment along the lines of “kiddo”. It’s also a class marker. It is used exclusively by blue collar parents, or parents who were themselves raised by blue collar parents, even if they are now middle class.

    You will never hear an American from an upper middle or upper class background use “buddy” with their kid.

    It’s a distinct class marker, in the sense that those who use it are oblivious that it is not used by the well-educated/upper classes, and the well educated/upper classes would never ever use this term.

    1. Check your “data” Heather. You’re a little too sure about something that is not true. I live in a upper-middle class community in New York City and the great majority of fathers, including myself, call their children (usually male) ‘buddy’. We even refer to each others children as buddy.
      I also spend time in Long Island and CT upper-class communities where ‘buddy’ is used quite often.
      I have to respectively disagree that it is a *distinct* class marker for anyone other than yourself.

    1. Hands raised in a calming motion – Hey hey, no one likes to have class markers discussed, especially if it feels like one that hits close to home; but she wasn’t saying there are no endearments, just that this one isn’t in circulation. While she offered no evidence, if you look at the verrrrryyyyy first comment to the post:

      “I’d agree that this would be extremely rare in a middle-class English family, but there are working-class communities where I’ve heard this quite commonly in the English East Midlands.”

      I’d tend to agree with her highly anecdotal remark – here is more anecdote – I knew kids in other families who got called “Buddy” as their name, eventually, and it was ALWAYS in families of a working/lower middle class nature.

      Somewhat ike Bubba in the South (which takes us into a whole weird new can of worms area) which NONironically is always used by the lower middle/lower class (are these really terms we have to use? I don’t have better ones right off hand) but CAN be used semi-ironically, usually as a reversal nickname for the biggest, most successful, former-golden-boy-football-player, attorney or judge in the area. Like calling a fat guy “Slim” or a bald guy “curly.” This is the only guy who can both afford to be called Bubba and relishes the faux aura of bonhomie it dispenses. Here is some evidence:

      http://www.georgiacriminaldefense.com/
      http://www.martindale.com/Dale-R-Bubba-Samuels/1586628-lawyer.htm

  18. There was no anger in my reply, though the “never, ever” seems ripe for debunking. The comment rings true to me, as well. But, are there no upper-class endearments for children? It’s an interesting statement on class differences in parenting.

    1. Off the cuff I would bet on more specific nicknames for people (interesting side thought, could it be better economic circumstances allow for more clear constructions of individuality in one’s social identity? Look at Grant’s recent article on Dolores and her ‘hon’s’ for ammo, everyone is a “Hon” in her lower middle class world).

      Classic examples include the WASPy nicknames people become known by, which tend to be very childish, like Skipper, or Bunny. Or again with the reversal, calling their (in the main) well behaved children (not saying they are morally superior, just drilled in manners) things like “Monster” or “Beast.” Or things that are not at all nice, like “Lizard” and “Pickle”.

      But the question must be raised, are these the same as calling a kid buddy? Not sure. And who gives the same or epithet or endearment that sticks? My son is called by one friend Pickle and by another Shaggy. But the one he goes by at home is Babyman, or Bman for short. Now, when I call him? I must admit to calling things like “Boo” “Booboo” and “Poochi”. All of which have a similar phonology as Buddy, but are at the same time quite different. I can also give the context that my family has been solidly upper middle class (doctors, lawyers, educators) for generations…

      So, I will be intrigued to see what folks do with this data. I am sure Grant never expected this to be such a long-running, viable thread!

  19. I have to admit that I’m amazed at the progression of the comments here. That being said I think the comments I take the biggest issue with are of the notion that it’s a “class marker”.

    I agree with many who have asked “Heather” to back up her comments either via anecdotes or with data.

    I think first we have to define the notion of class.

    Do we define class by socio-economics? Do we define it as pedigree/ilk?. Do we define it via academia or educational attainment. If we use socio-economics then the notion of “class” becomes remarkably difficult to define. Reality TV has shown clearly that money can by you access but can’t buy you class.

    Let’s say we define class via pedigree/ilk (socialites, debutantes)? Does Paris Hilton’s “That’s hot/huge” merit itself in our lexicon then as a “class marker?”.

    I won’t go into depth personally about me but as an African American and a winner of genetic lottery, theoretically, I would find myself in a certain segment of “class.” Just today I was playing flag football with a bunch of friends who socio-economically are in the top 5 percent of the country.

    Being sort of hypersensitive to this recently, especially in light of this post, I would listen to a college friend who just moved into a brandy new $1.7 million dollar home.

    He grew up privileged and then some. Summers on the Cape, best boarding schools,private college and so forth. And on this day, he would refer to a good deal of his friends including his son as…. “buddy”.

  20. The word bud or buddy has been used by my Step dad since the first time I met him. I was about nine and I figured he was doing it to be polite and to just make it so I would feel comfortable around him. Then I heard him saying this to my friends, and he also says it to his son. I am now a lot older and he still uses the word bud or buddy when trying to ask me to do something like mow the lawn or take the trash out. It is a word that I think will linger on forever because he likes to use this word with people that are younger than him and maybe it makes him feel more comfortable than saying my name. This is not the only occasion were I have heard the word bud either, just recently I have heard it with one of my friends and I really feel like that word should only be used by Dads because when two friends call each other bud or buddy it makes me feel really little.

  21. This post has probably run its course, but I do think it is worth noting that there is definitely a usage of ‘buddy’ with the intent of disrespect (i.e. “Listen buddy!”) and also can be perceived as disrespectful when there is no intent (i.e. “I’m not your buddy!”). This tends to happen between 2 parties that have, at minimum, past adolescents and one of the parties is either older than the other or trying to take a position of control/authority. I guess you can say that for any type of term of endearment, but maybe that is what puts ‘buddy’ firmly in that category.
    BTW, I have 2 young boys and I love calling them buddy. Especially in “partners in crime” scenarios. I also call close male friends buddy as part of a greetings and goodbyes.

  22. I never nicknamed my son, “Buddy”, but when he was a tot, I sometimes referred to him as “Dad’s little buddy”, so I suspect that some start calling their sons this, and it gets shortened to “Buddy” over time.

  23. I actually find it repulsive when parents call their children “buddy”. It’s your son, not your work colleague. Call them
    sweetheart, honey, boo, any cute nickname, but buddy? yuck. Male parents, especially, should show their kids more affection.

      1. Sweetheart is not repulsive! It shows a kind of pure love, not altered by pretending that your child is your ‘buddy’. Actually, I find the word ‘buddy’ really annoying. A little more imagination and common sense would make a difference…

        1. Gotta go with Zoe on this one. I would not want to call my son the same thing I might call a wife, daughter or girlfriend. When I was young I heard a father calling his six-year old son “honey” and I found it disconcerting. To each his own.

  24. Having arrived in Marin County, CA, recently (from Europe), we have noticed many fathers and mothers calling their boys AND DOGS ‘buddy’.
    I frequently joke (and do sometimes wonder) whether lead such busy lives that they have trouble remembering their pets’ names….
    My sons have first names and that is what I call them.

      1. In the UK and Australia the equivalent for ‘buddy’ for a friend us ‘mate’.
        While living in England I heard it a lot, and managed never to react when friends or strangers (!) addressed me that way.

        I think it is (or used to be) a (lower/middle) class thing that has migrated to general use.

    1. Michael, excellent, thanks. A couple of weeks ago in Connecticut I heard a 38 year old (~) mother greet a kid who was around 10, clearly a friend of one of her kids, with “Dude! No way! What up!” And I thought to myself, “what is this generation going to have to come up with to get a little distance.” Thanks, Grant

    2. In the UK and Australia the equivalent for ‘buddy’ for a friend us ‘mate’.
      While living in England I heard it a lot, and managed never to react when friends or strangers (!) addressed me that way.

      I think it is (or used to be) a (lower/middle) class thing that has migrated to general use.

  25. In the UK and Australia the equivalent for ‘buddy’ for a friend us ‘mate’.
    While living in England I heard it a lot, and managed never to react when friends or strangers (!) addressed me that way.

    I think it is (or used to be) a (lower/middle) class thing that has migrated to general use.

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