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A lovable bully

By Anatoly Liberman


Bullying is a hot topic. Strict laws have been passed with the view of intimidating the intimidators or at least keeping them at bay. Regardless of the consequences such measures may have, linguists cannot ignore the problem and keep out of the public eye. So to arms, comrades!

That a word like bully should vex etymologists needn’t surprise anybody. As I have said many times, nasty words tend to have irritatingly obscure histories; apparently, they have a good deal to hide. In English texts, bully surfaced around the middle of the sixteenth century and meant “sweetheart, darling,” originally applied to either sex but later only to men (the sense was “good friend; fine fellow”). Shakespeare treasured this word and used it regularly beginning with 1600. One can even suspect that at that time it was jocular street slang. Judging by phrases like lovely bully and “What saiest thou, bully, Bottom,” it occupied a place comparable to that of today’s ubiquitous dude.

Since the word is so late, its supposed derivation from Dutch (such is the verdict of the best authorities) should not encounter any objections. Bully might well be an adaptation of Middle Dutch boele “lover.” Its Modern Dutch continuation is boel “mistress, concubine”; compare German Buhle “lover” and Nebenbuhler “rival.” Boele, it seems, crossed the channel with hundreds of other Dutch words, now perfectly domesticated in English. Most people have heard about the Viking raids, the Norman Conquest, and the influence of both events on the vocabulary of English, but few are aware of the “Dutch conquest,” indeed not a military but a linguistic one. Technical terms, nautical vocabulary, slang, and numerous everyday words reached England in the early modern periods from the Low Countries, though it is often hard to tell whether they came from Northern German or Dutch.

It has been known for a long time that, alongside bully, Scots and northern English dialectal billy “friend, companion” exists. Its origin is also obscure (from the proper name?), so that it provides no clue to the history of bully; perhaps a coincidence. Although the etymology of the Dutch word need not delay us here, especially because opinions on this subject are divided, we will have to return to it closer to the end of our story. The puzzling thing is that bully “lover; friend; fine fellow” disappeared about two hundred years after it had its heyday in English. Only bully as part of historical “titles,” as in bully captain and bully doctor, is a distant echo of that sense.  Other than that, we know bully “swashbuckler; blustering browbeater.” I doubt that bully “excellent” is another relic of bully “lover”; more likely, it is an analog of damned good and awfully funny, in which words suggesting horror and perdition are emphatic variants of extremely. The modern senses of bully were preceded by “hired ruffian” and “protector of prostitutes,” that is, “pimp.”

From a lover to a bully. Florida Grand Opera production of Carmen.

Are bully “sweetheart” and bully “ruffian,” from a historical point of view, the same word? OED thought so (I say thought, rather than thinks, because Oxford’s etymological team has not yet revised the first letters of the dictionary.) According to James A.H. Murray, “[t]here does not appear to be sufficient reason for supposing that the senses under branch II. [that is, bully “ruffian”] are of distinct etymology: the sense of ‘hired ruffian’ may be a development of ‘fine fellow, gallant’ (compare bravo); or the notion of ‘lover’ may have given rise to that of ‘protector of a prostitute’, and this to the more general sense. In the popular etymological consciousness the word is perhaps now associated with bull [animal name]; compare bullock.” (The reference is to the dialectal verb bullock “bully.”)

Meaning can deteriorate or be ameliorated. German Recke “knight errant; hero” is a cognate of Engl. wretch; Engl. mad (an example cited in a recent blog) is a cognate of a Gothic adjective meaning “crippled” and of a Middle High German adjective meaning “beautiful.”  At one time, Engl. fond meant “stupid.” Linguistic textbooks are full of such examples. Therefore, theoretically speaking, “sweetheart” might become “pimp” and still later “someone who tyrannizes the weak”; the distance between love and hatred is short. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology does not disagree with the OED. It only mentions the fact that Middle Dutch boele could be used as a term of endearment or reproach. However, early Modern Engl. bully burdened with mild negative connotations didn’t turn up; it referred to either lovers or scoundrels. Perhaps “pimp” is an ironic extension of “sweetheart,” but “ruffian” and “browbeater” don’t fit in with the word’s earliest attested sense. Later dictionaries, to the extent that they say anything beyond “of obscure origin,” followed the OED. Only Henry Cecil Wyld called the suggested connection between bully “sweetheart” and bully “ruffian” unconvincing.

Stephen Skinner, whose posthumous etymological dictionary came out in 1671, must have known both senses of bully (the OED’s earliest citation for “ruffian” goes back to 1688), for, otherwise, he would not have vacillated among three etymons: burly, bulky, and bulla (the latter because in their bullas Popes threaten and bluster). None of the three words alludes to love or even friendliness, though Middle Engl. burly often meant “noble.” For a long time it was believed that bully was akin to Dutch bulderen “boom, roar,” German Poltergeist “a noisy spirit,” and other words designating noise and disturbance (so, for example, Wedgwood and Skeat in the first edition of his dictionary). This derivation points to a common flaw of many old and, deplorably, new conjectures; the researcher would discover a synonym with a root that matches the item under discussion and not bother about the type of word formation. Assuming that bully is related to bulderen, how was it coined? Did speakers isolate the root bul- and add a suffix to it? By comparison, Murray’s etymology has every advantage, and it is no wonder that both Wedgwood and Skeat gave up their ideas and followed the OED.

We can now return to the Middle Dutch form boele. As noted, its origin is disputable. Most scholars believe that it is a pet name for brother (Dutch broer). Yet I suspect that those who separate broer from boele have a point, mainly because I have seen convincing evidence for separating Engl. brother from buddy and learned to treat such etymologies with suspicion. Anyway, a case has been made that the Old English personal names Bola ~ Bolla and Bula ~ Bulla also originally meant “dear brother; lover.” Even if this were right, we would come closer to solving the etymology of bully “sweetheart” and of its Dutch counterpart but would still be unable to cross the bridge from “sweetheart” to “ruffian.” The usually helpful Century Dictionary ignored the etymology in the OED, made no changes between the first and the second edition (despite one reviewer’s criticism), and took the unity of bully1 and bully2 for granted; it did not explain how the second sense arose. Wedgwood, partly like Murray, wondered whether the bad sense of bully had come “from the conduct of a boon companion or from the special application to the bully of a courtesan, the mate or lover with whom she lives, and calls in to intimidate her customers.” Ernest Weekley attempted to connect various hypotheses and wrote that the initial sense “brother” had been affected by the animal name bull and Dutch bulderen.

With due respect to Murray’s idea, the speedy development from “sweetheart” to “ruffian” seems improbable, and references to bravos, gallants, and aggressive pimps do not go a long way. (I emphasize speedy, because no evidence supports Weekley’s suggestions that bully “lover” may have existed in Middle English; Shakespeare’s joy in using the word seems to prove the opposite.) Such semantic revolutions are easier to understand against the background of societal changes. For example, in Old Norse, during the epoch of military campaigns, víkingr was the name of an honored occupation. When the raids came to an end, former vikings became a pest, and the word’s connotations changed: heroic posturing became a farce. In similar circumstances, the word berserkr, also in the north, altered its meaning from “member of an elite royal guard” to “marauder.” The etymon of German Recke and Engl. wretch denotes “exile.” In one country, a man divorced from home turned into an honored solitary adventurer; in the other, his miserable status came to the foreground. An inner development from “lover; gallant” to “blustering tyrant” is possible, but the alleged unprovoked change occurred too quickly to look credible. A bully good man suddenly became a bully.

I suggest that we are dealing with two different words. A dim light comes from Engl. bulkin, now obsolete, except in Jamaica. It goes back to a Dutch word for a bull calf (a noun with a diminutive suffix) and is used as a term of endearment and as an expression of contempt. Perhaps bully, understood as a cognate of bull, merged with bully “lover.” A timid suggestion along these lines, traceable to Murray’s initial etymology, can be found in several modern dictionaries indebted to the OED. Bully “lover” was probably not “affected” by bull but fell prey to the accidental similarity between them. Bully is bull-y, just as doggie is dog(g)-ie. If so, noisy boon companions and chivalrous pimps, along with their frightened “courtesans,” need not bother us any longer.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Image credit: Julia Ebner, Adam Diegel & Kendall Gladen in 2009 – 2010 production of Carmen by Georges Bizet (Photo: Gaston De Cardenas), part of FGO’s Opera Free for All project. 20 April 2010. Florida Grand Opera. Photo by Knight Foundation. Creative Commons License. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Marc Leavitt

    I’m only familiar with four uses of “bully” in relatively modern times: As a verb, “to bully,” a noun, “a bully,” an adjective, “a bully good job,” an interjection, “That’s bully!” and an adjective again,”bully boys” in the sense of “ruffians” (I’ve only seen the latter use in somewhat antique novels). None of them, except the noun and verb seem to be in common use in American English. My surmise is that British English still uses them in certain higher socio-economic strata, althougth I can’t attest to the truth of my hunch.

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  4. Terry Collmann

    Marc Leavitt: I thought it was Teddy Roosevelt who would exclaim “Bully, sir! Bully!” Don’t believe that’s a BrE expression, now or in the recent past. “Bully boys”, however, still pops up across BrE, normally as a description of an alleged intimidating gang in, eg, politics or sport. Try a Google News search for the expression.

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