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Shakespearean passions around ‘bullyragging’

By Anatoly Liberman


After writing a post on bully, I decided to turn my attention to bullyrag, noun and verb, both branded as obscure. The verb has been attested in several forms, but only ballarag is of some interest. Ballywrag is a fanciful spelling of ballarag, while bullrag contains the familiar two elements without a connecting vowel. The first citation in the OED is surprisingly recent (1790). A freshman at Harvard College in 1758 remembered that some students had been examined for bulraging (sic) a certain man. His recollection pushes bullyrag and its closest analogs only to the middle of the eighteenth century. The later a word of unknown origin surfaces, the more uncomfortable one feels about its origin. We expect the past, ideally prehistory, to be a repository of odd things, but 1758? Lexicographer Joseph E. Worcester, a one-time formidable American competitor of Noah Webster, called bullyrag local and low; The Century Dictionary echoed Worcester (“provincial and low”). I wonder how they came to their conclusions (“local, provincial”). Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary says: “…in general dialectal and slang use in Scotland, Ireland and America.” Dialectal use does not mean “of dialectal descent”: people living far away from the capital and large towns are as prone to assimilate common slang as anyone else. The verb’s popularity at Harvard and Oxford (for Oxford see the OED) might even suggest that it arose in those quarters and spread everywhere, as happened, for example, to chum and crony.

Bally (mainly British) is believed to be an alteration of bloody, but perhaps once it was a word in its own right and became a milder (less blasphemous) substitute for bloody. In any case, the original form of the ignoble verb seems to have been bullyrag, not ballyrag. What then can be its origin? The earliest guess I have found belongs to Edward Lye, the posthumous editor of Junius’s etymological dictionary (1743, the entry rag; like Stephen Skinner, Franciscus Junius did not live to see his dictionary in print). He traced the verb to Icelandic ból “house, dwelling” and rægja “to slander, libel” (I have modernized Lye’s spelling). This etymology is only of historical interest, as the gentle euphemism for “old and utterly useless” goes. Eric Partridge’s tentative derivation “to make a bully’s rag of” should join Lye’s. As long as we are dealing with rags, we may recollect that a rag is used to annoy a bull, but a piece of “low” British slang (I assume it is British) would have hardly originated in the customs of bullfighting (corrida), the more so as the form bullyrag occurs more often than bullrag.

The problem is -rag rather than bully. To rag means “banter, annoy; scold”; it is a synonym of bully. The Century Dictionary quotes a passage from Notes and Queries, which I too have in my database, but I found it a hundred years later: “To rag a man is good Lincolnshire for chaff or tease. At school, to get a boy into a rage was called getting his rag out.” The most natural conjecture would be to treat bullyrag as a tautological compound: “annoy-annoy.” Such words are rather numerous, and some time ago I wrote a post about them. The simplest way of emphasizing an idea is to repeat it; hence words like tum-tum, do-do, and beriberi (reduplication). Going a step further produces tautologies like courtyard (“court-court” or “yard-yard”) and Gothic marisaiws “sea,” literally, “sea-sea,” presumably “a large sea” or, if “a lake and a sea at the same time,” then a compound instead of hendiadys (= a single concept expressed by two words, with and between them ). Bullying people is bad, ragging them is also bad, but bullyragging is truly awful. Jonathon Green, the author of a recent dictionary of slang, also explained bullyrag as bull + rag but offered no discussion.

BULL(Y)RAGGING. Bull fight in Bogotá in 2005. Photo by Argyriou via Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons License.

If one casts the net for look-alikes widely, the catch will not be too meager: Engl. rag “shred of cloth,” Dutch raggen “run around in a state of wild excitement,” Swedish ragla ~ raggla “wobble,” and ragamuffin, along with ragabash “disreputable person” (chiefly Scots). One of them may shed light on the etymology of rag “annoy, banter, rail at” (which is, most likely, of Scandinavian descent), but our concern is not with the origin of this verb since in dealing with bullyrag we take its existence for granted.

We might stop here, but for a word Shakespeare knew and liked. Scene 3 of Act 1 of Merry Wives of Windsor opens so: “FALSTAFF: Mine host of the Garter— HOST: What says my bully rook? Speak scholarly and wisely.” One wonders whether the phrase bully rook has anything to do with bullyrag. In Shakespeare’s days, rook usually meant “simpleton” (a usual reference to a bird, any bird being proverbially stupid: compare gull, goose, and so forth); the senses “sharper, cheat” turned up later. Assuming that bully here was part of a friendly greeting, we should agree that the host did not call Falstaff a simpleton, let alone cheat, and that no offence was meant. (Why should any deferential host insult a customer, especially someone who was not a commoner and even used to hobnob with princes?) In all probability, bully rook meant “boon companion; honored frequenter” or something similar. In the comedy, mine host addresses other people in the same way. The spelling of bully rook poses a minor problem. I followed The Oxford Shakespeare, but the variants bullyrook and bully-rook cannot be dismissed out of hand. Also, bullyrook sometimes alternated with bullyrock.

The Century Dictionary says that bully-rook is equivalent to Low German buller-brook (pronounce oo as aw inEngl. raw) and buller-bäck and is apparently free variation of bullyrag. This information seems to have been lifted from Barrère and Lelalnd’s 1897 Dictionary of Slang (bullyrag is said there to be certainly of Dutch origin), with the substitution of Low German for Dutch. Low (= northern) German is a vague term; without an exact reference to a dialect and the source the form cannot be verified. In Middle Low German, for which a splendid dictionary exists, no such word occurred. The Dutch counterpart of the OED lists only buller-bäck “boisterous man” and compares it with the words mentioned in my previous post (German Poltergeist and others). Buller-brook would have been more interesting because it sounds somewhat like Engl. bully rook ~ bully rock. One might suggest that the slang Shakespeare used was borrowed from the Low Countries, but, to do so, bully-brook must first lose its status of a ghost word. With the scarce evidence at our disposal, we can only say that bullyrag and bullyrook ~ bullyrock are indeed so similar that the coining of the tautological compound verb bullyrag may have been prompted by the existence of a noun meaning “habitué of pubs.” But in bullyrook and especially bully rook, bully meant “good, dear, excellent,” with rook weakened to “fellow, guy,” while our bully is probably a different word, as I tried to show last week. I found it hard to bridge the distance between “lover; friend” and “a person intimidating the weak.”

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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  1. [...] of an etymology geek.  I love reading about word history and origins.  So I was pleased to see this piece on “bullyrag.”  This is not a word that I’m very familiar with but what was really interesting to me is a [...]

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