“Bully,” a Word with a Split Personality

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Bully is one of many English words that have undergone semantic degeneration or pejoration.

Beginning as a pleasant word, bully is now associated with one of the lowest forms of human behavior.

The origin of the English word is obscure, but it may come from Dutch boel, “lover (of either sex). Boel could also mean “brother.”

Bully’s earliest meaning in English is as a term of endearment, meaning sweetheart or darling. It was applied to either sex.

Applied to a man by another man, bully implied friendly admiration. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, Pistol’s extravagant praise of the king ends with “I love the lovely bully.”

Sometimes it was used as a term of address, rather as one might say, “Brother Jim.” In A Midsummer’s Night Dream, his fellow workmen address Bottom the weaver as “bully Bottom.”

According to an OED citation, in 1862, “Bully” was still in familiar use “amongst brother workers in the coal district.”

Words don’t change their meanings all at once. Even as some speakers continued to use bully in a positive sense, it began to take on less pleasant connotations for others.

The same “bully” who seemed a “hail fellow well met” or “a good old boy” to his friends might be seen as a “loudmouth” or a “showoff,” or a “swaggering fellow” to strangers.

In the UK in 1862, a coal miner might call his friend “bully,” but in the United States in 1863, an observer could describe another man as “a low-minded, unscrupulous bully, notorious for his pro-Slavery sympathies.”

As early as 1706, for some folks, a bully was a pimp: “one who lives by protecting prostitutes.” From that usage, it was not much of a leap to the meaning, “a ruffian hired for purposes of violence or intimidation.”

Finally, in our day, the noun bully is universally understood to mean, “a tyrannical coward who makes himself a terror to the weak.”

From the noun comes the verb “to bully,” with both transitive and intransitive forms.

To act the bully towards; to treat in an overbearing manner; to intimidate, overawe.

To bluster, use violent threats; to swagger.

Interestingly, whereas the noun bully has descended from an endearment to an epithet of disdain, and the verb reflects a negative meaning, the adjective retains a positive meaning—at least, in one specific context.

Applied to people, the adjective bully meant, “worthy, jolly’ admirable.”

Applied to things, bully meant “capital, first-rate, the best.”

The expression, “Bully for you!” was the equivalent of our “Good Job!”

A bully-boat” was a boat “that beats everything on those [Mississippi] waters.” One could speak admiringly of a “bully dinner,” “a bully celebration,” or a “bully exhibit.” This is a meaning that has survived in the modern idiom, “bully pulpit.”

bully pulpit: US politics, a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.

Literally, a pulpit is a raised platform in a place of worship, from which speakers urge the members of the congregation to live good lives.

Figuratively, a pulpit is a position of authority—ideally, a position of moral authority. US President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) is associated with the phrase, which may have originated with him.

“President Roosevelt, sitting at his desk, was reading to a few friends a forthcoming message. At the close of a paragraph ‘of a distinctly ethical character’ he wheeled about and said: ‘I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!’”— “Roosevelt Administration.” New York Times, 4 Mar. 1909, p. 8.

Other than its positive use in the expression “bully pulpit,” the adjective bully shares the infamy of the noun and the verb.

Almost as common as “bully pulpit” is “bully tactics”: the use of intimidation to gain one’s objective.

Such bully tactics pose a serious threat to the independence of the judiciary and ultimately to the fairness and justice of our legal system.

The last word has not been spoken on bully. As I worked on this post, I came across the term “bully algorithm”:

In distributed computing, the bully algorithm is a method for dynamically electing a coordinator or leader from a group of distributed computer processes.

I have no idea what that means.

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4 thoughts on ““Bully,” a Word with a Split Personality”

  1. “Bully for you” may still mean “Good for you.” but it’s not a positive term. It’s usually said with a sneer. For example, someone doing something that badly affects people but has a positive outcome for themselves. “Well, bully for you! What about the rest of us!” for example.

  2. Andrew Halliwell,
    I think it is also used in a sarcastic manner in the context of someone expecting praise for a commonplace action. For example, a housemate who has taken out the garbage without being prodded.

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