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Whose Finger Do You Want on the Button?


In 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a fake 'reset' button during a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. The red button says "reset" in English and "overload" in Russian. This references the Obama administration's desire to improve ties with Russia. (AP Photo / Fabrice Coffrini Pool)

Now, Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

On this program, we explore the meaning of everyday expressions in the English language. Today, we talk about a common object that appears in many expressions – buttons!

When we pronounce this word, we often swallow the “t’s” and pronounce, “buttons.”

Buttons are found on all sorts of clothing. They are usually small and round and made of metal or plastic. They fasten, or connect, one piece of clothing to another. They make sure your clothes don’t fall off. When speaking or writing in English, buttons can be just as useful.

Some buttons can be beautiful and even have very fine details.

But are they cute?

Babies are cute as buttons. We just don't know why.
Babies are cute as buttons. We just don't know why.

To be cute as a button is an old saying. It means to be attractive or sweet, but in a small way.

Babies are often described as cute as a button. Language experts don’t know why. But they do say this expression dates back to the late 1860s.

But we do know more about two other button expressions: button-down and buttoned-up.

Men or women often wear button-down shirts to the office. Button-down as an adjective means to be conservative or traditional. People described as buttoned-down stay close as possible to the normal way of dressing and behaving. They don’t wear crazy clothing or do unusual things.

People and events can both be described as buttoned-down. We should note here that as an adjective you can either say "buttoned-down” or “button-down.”

However, the adjective buttoned-up is a little different.

If someone is buttoned-up, he or she seems very business-like. In personal relationships, a buttoned-up person is cold and standoffish, meaning they physically and emotionally keep away from others. Buttoned-up people are not warm or friendly. And they do not share their inner thoughts and feelings with others.

Using buttoned-up as an adjective always uses “buttoned.” In the expression button up, “button” is a verb. It means to stop talking.

There are many other ways “button” is used as a verb. When you fasten a button, you can also just say button a button. So, you can say to a friend, "Hey, your top button is unbuttoned. You should button it."

When button a button you slip it into a buttonhole. A buttonhole traps the button. So, to buttonhole someone means you have trapped them in a spoken conversation.

Now, let’s say you find yourself buttonholed in a conversation at a party. The person just keeps talking and talking and talking! Finally, you can’t take it any longer. You tell the person to button it! This is a direct, but unacceptable way of saying, “Stop talking!”

Button your lip is another equally rude but effective way to stop a person who talks too much.

Keep in mind these expressions should only be used in extreme situations with difficult people.

Another kind of difficult person is someone who pushes your buttons.

To push someone’s buttons means to know exactly how to get that person angry or upset. People who like to push other people’s buttons usually do it for selfish reasons. First they find a person’s weak point. Then they use it to upset them.

Button-pushers are very dislikable. People who push the panic button are not as disliked as button-pushers. However, they can be tiring to others. In a crisis, it is important to remain calm. Pushing the panic button can make an already tense situation worse.

However, to have your finger on the button is a serious expression, especially when you are president of the United States. It means you have the ability to launch a nuclear attack.

In a U.S. presidential election campaign, voters are sometimes asked the question, “Do you really want that person to have their finger on the button?” That is a way of saying the candidate cannot be trusted.

This is a political button. You can get buttons like these with any image, even your beloved cat.
This is a political button. You can get buttons like these with any image, even your beloved cat.

Speaking of politics, in political discussions there are many hot button issues.

These days in the United States, illegal immigration is a hot button issue. A hot button issue is one that causes people to react with strong emotion. Many people cannot talk about it without getting worked up. Such issues can often lead to arguments.

Now, let’s hear how to use some of these button expressions in a short dialogue.

A: Did you have fun at the party last night?

B: Oh, it was … okay. Most of the people I talked to were buttoned-down political types. All they wanted to talk about were the hot-button issues from the election campaign.

A: Two of them tried to buttonhole me into a political conversation. But I avoided getting involved.

B: How did you do that?

A: I brought up some other heated issues, ones that I knew would push their buttons. When they began arguing, I was able to slip away.

B: Good for you. I got buttonholed with a few people for an hour.

A: How did you finally get away from them?

B: I pushed the panic button. I yelled, “Look! A rat!!” Everyone shouted and ran away.

A: You’re terrible. I’ll have to remember that one.

And that brings us to the end of Words and Their Stories. But don’t push the panic button! We’ll be back next week.

I’m Anna Matteo.

“You got me pushing imaginary buttons. Step away from the lover, away from the lover…”

Do you use buttons? Not on your clothing! Do you use them in your native language? Let us know in the Comments Section.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. At the end of the program, Sia sings “Buttons.”

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Words in This Story

swallow v. to utter sounds indistinctly

standoffish adj. not friendly toward other people

rude adj. not having or showing concern or respect for the rights and feelings of other people : not polite

worked up adj. very angry, excited, or upset about something

to slip away - verbal phrase to leave a place without being noticed <They slipped away from the party right after dinner.>

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