A WORD IN THE HAND: BULLY
The bully the Bard loved is not the brute we have a beef with
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Bullies are nasty, brutish and inherently cowardly creatures who get off on abusing the vulnerable, right? Not according to Shakespeare.
Will used the word “bully” 19 times in his plays. He wrote “Bless thee, bully doctor” in The Merry Wives of Windsor, “O, sweet bully Bottom” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and “I love the lovely bully” in Henry V.
Shakespeare was not some sort of masochist, in case you’re wondering. In his day, “bully” meant a damn fine fellow, someone you’d be pleased to call a good mate and would certainly never dream of being mean to or excluding from your WhatsApp group.
In 2012, etymologist Anatoly Liberman wrote a marvellous essay on the origins of bully for the Oxford University Press blog. Liberman noted that “nasty words tend to have irritatingly obscure histories; apparently, they have a good deal to hide”.
Bully is certainly one of these. It arrived late to English, as bullies so often do – either because they’ve been kept after class by the maths teacher for a pointless talking-to or because they’re holding a small kid by the ankle until it hands over its marijuana stash.
According to most word historians, bully came from the Dutch boel, which meant mistress or concubine. Bully wasn’t the only word from the lowlands to seduce the English. We can also thank the Dutch for booze, stove, cookie, brandy, geek, loiter, dope, coleslaw and, of course, apartheid.
But let’s get back to bully. In the 1500s it was a term of endearment for both men and women. By Shakespeare’s time it had migrated to a somewhat more platonic plane and was reserved for the exclusive use of men. The mystery, however, is what turned bully from a decent chap into a loathsome oik.
Words, like people, can go wrong no matter how noble their origins or strict their parents. Bully is one of those well-born words that took a wrong turn somewhere, or perhaps it was just waiting for an opportunity to show its true colours.
Bully as a jocular greeting disappeared for a couple of centuries, leading some etymologists to speculate that modern bullies are perhaps more likely to have sprung from an association with grumpy horned animals made of beef, or barrel-chested dogs that bite and never let go. Others point out that bully took a dip into the underworld after Shakespeare used it so fondly. It appeared here and there as first a pimp and then a ruffian, which possibly paved the way for today’s bullies who prey on the less robust.
The interesting thing about bullies – the ugly new ones, not the sweet Elizabethan ones – is that they seem to pick on people who scare them, meaning those individuals who refuse to conform to what passes as acceptable in the bully’s narrow worldview, in particular anyone who refuses to acknowledge the bully as a superior being.
A case in point is Steve Hofmeyr, who threw a Twitter tantrum after the Blue Bulls announced that they would no longer be playing the song he wrote for them before their games. Steve said in that case he will be choosing a new team to support, so there.
The Bulls are bullish about this. They are hardly the first to have a beef with Steve, although you have to admit that anyone who takes on an entire rugby union certainly has at least the outward semblance of balls.
Speaking of beef, bully beef is a pinkish, gelatinous oblong, also known as corned beef, which was the staple ration of British soldiers in several wars. It has nothing to do with bullies of either the friendly or vicious variety. Bully, in this case, comes from the French word for boiled, although it is doubtful any Frenchman would want to be associated with these cans of so-called food.
Like Steve Hofmeyr, the French probably want to put as much distance between themselves and the bulls as possible.