The Grammarphobia Blog

Bullies and bulldogs

Q: I came across someone who wonders if “bullying” has something to do with “bulldogs.” Is there anything to this? Or is it just bull?

A: It’s just bull, though the paths of the two words did cross at least once (more on this later).

“Bullying” and “bulldogs” aren’t etymologically related. In fact, the word “bully” had nothing to do with what we now think of as “bullying” when it entered English in the 1500s.

The noun “bully” was originally “a term of endearment and familiarity” similar to “sweetheart” or “darling,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although it was initially used for both men and women, the OED says, it was “later applied to men only, implying friendly admiration: good friend, fine fellow, ‘gallant.’ ”

The origins of the word are fuzzy, but the dictionary suggests that it might have come from boel or buole, Dutch or Middle High German terms for a lover.

The earliest Oxford citation for the usage is from A Comedy Concernynge Thre Lawes, of Nature Moses, & Christ, Corrupted by the Sodomytes, Pharysees and Papystes (circa 1548), a morality play by John Bale, an Anglican bishop:

“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.” (“Muskyne” and “mullye” are obsolete terms of endearment.)

Here are a few examples from Shakespeare’s plays:

“From my hart strings I loue the louely bully.” (Henry V, c. 1600.)

“What saiest thou, bully, Bottome?” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, c. 1600.)

“Blesse thee my bully doctor.” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, c. 1602.)

In the late 1600s, the term “bully” came to mean a “blustering gallant” or a “swashbuckler,” according to the OED, though it now generally means “a tyrannical coward who makes himself a terror to the weak.”

It’s impossible to tell from the dictionary’s examples when the swashbuckling sense of the noun evolved into the tyrannical sense.

But the verb “bully,” which showed up in the early 1700s, was initially used in both the blustering and tyrannical senses—or, as the OED defines it, “to act the bully towards; to treat in an overbearing manner; to intimidate, overawe.”

The OED’s earliest example for the verb is from Samuel Palmer’s Moral Essays on Some of the Most Curious and Significant English, Scotch and Foreign Proverbs (1710): “His poor neighbour is bully’d by his big appearance.”

And here’s an example in Google Books of the noun used in the tyrannical sense, from Tobias Smollett’s 1775 novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker:

“Then, it must be owned, he wants courage, otherwise he would never allow himself to be cowed by the great political bully, for whose understanding he has justly a very great contempt.”

As for the noun “bulldog,” it first showed up in the mid-1700s. (The OED has a questionable 1518 citation that refers to “two bolddogges,” but it’s unclear whether the animals were actually bulldogs.)

The dictionary defines the noun, which it hyphenates, as “a dog of a bold and fierce breed, with large bull-head, short muzzle, strong muscular body of medium height, and short smooth hair.”

Oxford says the name of the dog is derived from the words “bull” and “dog.” Why a bull? Because the dog was once used in bull-baiting—a “sport” in which a dog would lock its teeth onto the snout of a tethered bull.

The first clear “bulldog” citation in the OED is from a 1752 essay by David Hume: “The courage of bull-dogs and game-cocks seems peculiar to England.”

The adjective “bully” (meaning admirable) showed up in the late 1600s. We discussed this usage in a blog post several years ago about the term “bully pulpit.”

In the late 1800s, the adjective was also used to describe someone who looked like a bulldog—this is where the paths of “bully” and “bulldog” crossed.

The OED’s sole example of the adjective used this way is from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1883 novel Phantom Fortune: “Angelina is bully about the muzzle.” (Angelina is a fox terrier.)

Although the usage hasn’t made it into the OED or standard dictionaries, many dog rescue groups use the term “bully breeds” to refer to such breeds as the American Staffordshire terrier, bull terrier, bulldog, and bullmastiff.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

­