The Grammarphobia Blog

Wooly Bully

Q: Your discussion of podiums and lecterns made me think of pulpits, specifically bully pulpits. I sometimes hear the phrase “bully pulpit“ used for a public position that lets one bully people, not merely expound one’s views. I always thought that when Teddy Roosevelt coined the expression, he used “bully” the way we might use “perfect” or “great.” That is, unless this is a language urban legend.

A: No, your explanation of “bully pulpit” isn’t an urban legend. And you’re right that no “bullying” was implied in the phrase, at least originally.

The first person to use it was indeed Theodore Roosevelt. In the February 27, 1909, issue of The Outlook magazine, a reporter wrote that Roosevelt “swung round in his swivel chair, and said: ‘I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!’”

The adjective “bully” had been used in 17th-century England to describe people who were worthy or jolly or admirable, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But in mid-19th-century America, the term was widened to apply to anything that was first-rate, as in “The cook will give you a bully dinner” (1855). In the 1860s, Americans said “bully for you” or simply “bully” to mean “job well done.”

Roosevelt’s quote took on a life of its own. The OED now defines a “bully pulpit” as “a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.”

No bullying there. But politics often makes for fuzzy—or wooly—thinking. As Sam the Sham and Pharaohs sang back in the ’60s, “Wooly Bully”!

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