What the history of the word can tell us about the (unfortunately) hot topic of bullying.
As kids, most of us were probably on both sides of bullying. That was the case with me. As an unconfident, skinny dork, I was a tempting target for certain jackasses—but I wasn’t above contributing to class-wide bullying of the most put-upon social pariahs. It didn’t take much guts or brains to intimidate me, and it took even less balls of my own to dish out mean words to kids who were already taking it from nearly everyone. I guess it evened out.
If only it always did. As we now know, bullying is a lot more serious than what many of us did or had done to us: It seems like you can’t turn on the computer without reading about a gay—or presumed gay—kid who commits suicide, with bullying as a major factor. (This epidemic had one positive effect: the “It Gets Better Project” founded by Dan Savage.) Of course, you don’t have to be gay to be bullied. Earlier this year, a 15-year-old girl hanged herself after vicious taunting and threats, and cyberbullying against all kinds of kids has become common. Given the seriousness of the matter, I feel a little bad for even thinking about such a trivial aspect of the topic as word history, but this is what I do.
There’s a popular theory about the origin of “bully”: Since bulls are so bullish to riders (and China shops), they must be the source of the word, right? Wrong. The real origin is muddy at best. “Bully” appears to have Dutch and German roots, evolving from words for “lover” and “friend.” Indeed, its earliest meaning was positive. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was “a term of endearment and familiarity, orig. applied to either sex .... Later applied to men only, implying friendly admiration: good friend, fine fellow, ‘gallant’.” You’d never see sentences today like this one, from 1599—“From heartstring I loue the louely Bully”—or this one, from 1754—“I haue promised to be with the sweet Bully early in the morning of her important day.”
In the 1600s, the word began branching off into creepier meanings that are closer to today’s bullies. “Bully” started to mean “A blustering ‘gallant’; a bravo, hector, or ‘swash-buckler.’” That sounds very cool and Han Solo-y, but it’s also a step closer to an aggressive bully. Another meaning sounds a little bizarre today: “protector of a prostitute.” Slowly, the word darkened in meaning, eventually living down to one of the OED’s most perfect definitions: “a tyrannical coward who makes himself a terror to the weak.” Here’s a 1780 use that conveys that cowardice well: “The most swaggering, swearing bullies in fine weather, were the most pitiful wretches on earth, when death appeared before them.”
Bullying can take on frighteningly specific forms, as seen in cyberbullying, one of the strongest reminders that the effects of technology are never entirely positive. There’s also “allergy bullying,” which is used in a 2008 example collected by The Word Spy’s Paul McFedries: “Whether it's an extension of garden-variety bullying or a backlash against greater restrictions on peanuts in schools, parents of children with severe allergies say their kids are increasingly facing threats of being touched or, worse, forced to eat the food they have spent their lives avoiding.” For older students, too much ale or lager can turn some into beer bullies, while “bullyproofing,” has been attempted in schools since at least the 1990s.
Metaphorical bullying is common too, and includes the trademark bully. The “bully offer”—an extravagant and somewhat shady offer for a house—is another sign of the unfortunate success of this word. Theodore Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit” is probably the most well-known variation. It referred more to the “outstanding” bully-for-you sense of “bully” than for any aggressiveness on Roosevelt’s part, but it’s hard to hear the positive sense of “bully” these days.
“Bully” is one of the scariest words I’ve ever written about, because it can mean so many things: excluding, teasing, rumor-spreading, harassing, abusing, coercing, online-terrorizing, torturing, and even driving to suicide—or “bullyicide,” as it has been called. That’s a frightening range. It’s enough to make you wish we all lived in a Simpsons episode, where Lisa Simpson could identify and eliminate a chemical like “Poindextrose” that sets bullies off. In our five-fingered, non-animated, all-too-real world, the solutions are slow; let’s hope they arrive before more lives are damaged or ended.