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On google, I could find sentences like this:

His belly stretched the buttons on his shirt.

How do buttons get "stretched"? Buttons are normally not elastic. Could this be slang?

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It might be easier to imagine someone's belly that could stretch the buttons on his shirt than to imagine someone who could persuade even a statue to talk. :-) –  Damkerng T. Jun 26 at 8:44
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Did you bother to look up stretch in a dictionary? Had you done so, you would have found definitions like "to draw tight; tighten", "to cause something to reach, often as far as possible, in a particular direction", and "to put a great strain upon or extend to the limit". Who said only elastic things stretch? –  J.R. Jun 26 at 9:43
    
@J.R. A button is pretty much rigid, so it cannot be "tightened" or "bent" or deformed. –  meatie Jun 28 at 8:26
    
@meatie, a button is sewn onto a garment, so it can certainly be tugged or pulled, and strain can be put on it. The definitions I've quoted don't use the words tighten, bend, or deformed. –  J.R. Jun 28 at 8:32

3 Answers 3

It's an idiomatic/tongue-in-cheek comment, which shouldn't be interpreted according to the literal dictionary definitions.

It simply means he has a big belly! :)

Image of shirt straining at its buttons

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So, "...stretch the buttons on..." is poorly written and should be changed to "his belly stretched the front part of his shirt"? –  meatie Jun 26 at 4:32
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No. The belly, being big, certainly stretches the buttons on his shirt. The usage is correct. You bend over backward to climb a tree and get a fruit for your girlfriend. This does not mean you bend backward to climb :) It's an idiomatic use that way. –  Maulik V Jun 26 at 4:37
    
There is a stretch on the threads of the buttons, @meatie. –  TRiG Jun 26 at 9:38
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meatie: "stretch the buttons on his shirt" simply means "stretch the shirt at and around the buttons". Far from being poorly-written, it is readily understandable. –  J.R. Jun 26 at 9:39
    
I'm not sure I'd even characterize this usage as idiomatic – not with definitions like the ones I posted in a comment to the question. Still, even if these definitions weren't in the dictionary, your answer is on the right track – and that man needs to find either a new diet or a new tailor. –  J.R. Jun 26 at 9:47

As Maulik has rightly pointed out, the buttons are not stretched in terms of their dimensions: they do not assume oval shapes.

Taken at face value, the expression may seem illogical, but it has two great advantages: it is vivid and concise.

It makes us imagine the poor buttons feeling themselves stretched by the tension arising from the belly's outward push on the fabric of the shirt. On a lean man, the buttons would've found themselves hanging freely, but here, they have stretching forces applied to them from the left and from the right. Note the horisontal stretch creases appearing on the shirt in the photo provided by Maulik.

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Yes! The shirt is stretching and pulling the threads that hold the button there, so it's damaging the button! –  Bob the zealot Jun 27 at 1:50

Sometimes stretch means to tighten.

We stretched the tent over the poles

We stretched a rope between two trees.

Stretch does not always mean to elongate in the process of tightening.

You might say the shirt was stretched around the buttons, but in this case we are emphasizing the stress on the buttons, in that the buttons are more likely to come off than the fabric is to tear, so the buttons are being stressed more although the shirt is more distorted by that stress.

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Yes, that is a good point. +1 –  Bob the zealot Jun 27 at 1:48
    
True... but then a rope and tent's material actually gets stretched! –  Maulik V Jun 27 at 4:38
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You are jut taking out sag, not elongating the fibers. Knit materials elongate, but woven doesn't usually. Rope can be elongated under great tension, but that amount of tension is not usually applied except in a context such as towing. What about stretching wire, as in installing a fence? –  Denise Skidmore Jun 27 at 14:24

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