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Knowing what I know—that the word bulldozer is supposed to have evolved from the brute force of beating someone up, this brute force seen as worthy of having an effect on a bull—it makes sense that the word bully might come from a similar bovine source.
It actually seems to come from the opposite end of the love-hate spectrum.
When the word bully first appeared in English it didn’t mean the type of person for which school anti-bullying programs were designed. Instead, someone you were very very fond of might be someone you would call a bully.
The thinking is that before its 1538 emergence into English the word had been Dutch.
The Dutch word I see translated as “sweetheart” and “lover.”
Domestic violence aside, that’s a long way from the meaning we think of.
How it made the leap from someone who makes you want to cuddle to someone who makes you cringe isn’t really known but there are a few enticing clues.
Most of the sources I consulted simply describe a gradual change from a darling person, to a good friend, to a good person, to someone who puts on a good face, and finally someone who threatens to put something covered in knuckles on your face.
There is that bull/bulldozer idea that might have had an influence.
But there is also the fact that for a while the good friend/lover meaning leant the word bully as a term for “pimp.”
Though the dictionaries don’t make any connections in this regard it seems to me that a pimp can simultaneously play the role of good-friend and tough-guy/enforcer.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.