the origin of the word ‘bully’?


The Charging Bull and Fearless Girl - New York City

The Charging Bull and Fearless Girl in New York City’s financial district
photograph: Mark Lennihan/AP – National Public Radio









bully: a person who hurts, persecutes or intimidates weaker people




One noun bully was a term of endearment and familiarity originally applied to either sex. It is first recorded in A comedy concernynge thre lawes, of nature Moses, & Christ, corrupted by the sodomytes. Pharysees and Papystes (1548?), written by John Bale (1495-1563), English polemicist and historian, and Bishop of Ossory:

The woman hath a wytt,
And by her gere can sytt,
Though she be sumwhat olde.
It is myne owne swete bullye,
My muskyne and my mullye,
My gelouer and my cullye.
Yea, myne owne swete hart of Golde.

– muskin meant a pretty face; it was hence used as a term of endearment for a woman;
– mully was a term of endearment applied to a woman;
– gelouer is apparently gillyflower; this word was applied to various plants;
– cully means companion; however, two obsolete verbs, cull and cully, meant to fondle in the arms.

The word bully was later applied to men only, and implied friendly admiration: it meant good friendfine fellow. The English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) often used it. For instance, in A Most pleasaunt and excellent conceited Comedie, of Syr Iohn Falstaffe, and the merrie Wiues of Windsor (Quarto 1, 1602), there is the following dialogue:

– Ford: Tell him my name
Is Rrooke, onlie for a Iest.
– Host: My hand bully: Thou shalt
Haue egres and regres, and thy
Name shall be Brooke.

The word was often prefixed as a sort of title to the name or designation of the person addressed. Several examples are found in A Midsommer nights dreame (Quarto 1, 1600), by Shakespeare: Peter Quince asks Nick Bottom “What saiest thou, bully, Bottom?”, and Francis Flute says “O sweete bully Bottome”.

Until the 19th century, bully was a dialectal noun meaning companionbrother. This sense seems to have been influenced by the Scottish and Northern-English word billy, of same meanings. John Trotter Brockett wrote, in A Glossary of North Country Words, in Use (1829):

BULLY, the champion of a party, the eldest male person in a family. Now generally in use among the keelmen and pitmen to designate a brother, companion, or comrade. In Cumberland, and also in Scotland, billy is used to express the same idea as bully.

And, as late as 1892, in Northumberland Words. A Glossary of Words used in the County of Northumberland and on the Tyneside, Oliver Heslop wrote:

BILLIEBILLY, fellow, companion, comrade, mate. […] See BULLY.
BULLY, equivalent to brother; a mate, a comrade.


One noun bully meant thugbravohired ruffian. It is first recorded in Bury-fair (1689), a comedy by the English playwright and poet Thomas Shadwell (circa 1640-1692):

If I have no other misfortune but the Head-ake, and Puking in the morning, to hear of this Friend breaking a Collar Bone with a fall, that having his Scull crack’d by the Watch, another run through the Lungs by drunken Bullies.
Well, I am of opinion, that a Lady is no more to be accounted a Beauty, till she has kill’d her Man; than the Bullies think one a fine Gentleman, till he has kill’d his.

This noun also meant protector of a prostitute. For instance, in Jure divino: a satyr (1706), the English novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) wrote:

Mars (b) the Celestial Bully they adore,
And (c) Venus for an Everlasting Whore.
(b) Is call’d the God of War; was born in Thrace: he Bullyed* Vulcan, and lay with his Wife, but Vulcan trick’t him, and expos’d him. Venus, Rhea and Kebe were his Whores.
(c) Venus was Vulcan’s Wife, but a common Whore: she lay with both Gods and Men, and is not unwarily call’d the Goddess of Whoredom; she kept Cupid for the Messenger of her Lewdness, and was Deified for her extravagant Lust.

(* Incidentally, “he Bullyed Vulcan” seems to be the earliest known instance of the verb bully.)




According to the New English Dictionary (1888), as the Oxford English Dictionary was known, there does not appear to be sufficient reason for supposing that bully as a term of endearment and bully in its negative senses are of distinct etymology: the sense of hired ruffian may be a development of that of fine fellow; or the notion of lover may have given rise to that of protector of a prostitute, and this to the more general sense.

But this theory does not account for such a rapid and complete semantic change. It is more likely that there are two distinct words of accidental formal identity: while the earlier bully is perhaps an adaptation of Middle Dutch boele, meaning lover (of either sex), the later bully might simply be derived from the noun bulluncastrated male bovine animal. This might be supported by the fact that the verb bullock, which appeared in the early 18th century in the sense to bully (it now means to work long and hard), is from the noun bullock, which originally denoted a young bull, or bull calf (it now always designates a castrated bull).

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