Why is a button cute? Apparently, because it’s small. “Cute as a button” has been used since the 1800s to mean delightful, charming, and attractive, but always with the connotation of being small. The word “cute” itself is a clipped form of “acute,” meaning sharp or clever.
The phrase is used only for small people or animals, such as children or puppies and kittens. It doesn’t seem appropriate for a six-foot man or a grown woman. So the image is of a small bright thing, of youth and promise.
The word “button” is found first in English in the 1300s, adapted from the Old French “bouton,” which was in turn derived from Latin roots. Like many words, “button” has been used for a wide variety of ways over time. It’s still used to mean the small disks used to fasten clothing and also flower buds on young plants. Then there’s the phrase “big red button” to refer to the button on some president’s desk that might start a war. However, “button” is always used to mean something small and round.
“Button” has also given rise to several slang phrases and metaphors. “On the button” means to be somewhere at an exact time or to the small dot at the center of a target. I can “push someone’s buttons” by saying something to annoy the person. To “button up” means the opposite, to remain silent. When we badly want to express an opinion, we “buttonhole” friend or foe, intending to forcefully detain that person in conversation. In the early 1800s, the original form of “buttonhole” was “button-hold,” and it meant to literally grab hold of a button on someone’s coat in order to keep him or her from walking away before you finished speaking.
Similar phrases are “cute as a bug’s ear,” “cute as a bug in a rug,” and “bright as a button.” Cute and keen were probably two of the most overused slang words of the 1920s and 1930s.
I prefer “cute as a button” to “cute as a bug’s ear,” though. I don’t think bugs are cute and, while their ears, if they have any, must be very tiny, I’m sure they’re no cuter than the bugs themselves.
Even “cute as a button” isn’t my favorite saying, because it reminds me of how many buttons I have to sew back on to assorted pieces of clothing.