In this week's edition of The Economist there is a review of Edith Pearlman's latest book of short stories. In it, the reviewer says the volume is

characterised by prose that is bolshie yet nuanced, elegant but not fussy, stylish without being vain.

Dictionaries I've consulted* inform me that bolshie means "radical" or "left-wing." These don't seem productive contrasts to "nuanced" in my view. I surmise that bolshie has to mean more than the dictionary is telling me. If so, what?

*NOAD ("A Bolshevik or socialist"), TFD ("difficult to manage, rebellious; any political radical"), Random House ("Bolshevik"), Webster's 3rd New Int'l, ("Bolshevik"), etc.

  • The Economist uses writers from around the world. Did you check where the reviewer lives?
    – Qsigma
    Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 16:10

6 Answers 6


Over 50 years ago I was perfectly familiar with the "playground slang" term bolshie meaning uncooperative, recalcitrant, truculent (Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, 2010). That was long before I knew anything about the political etymology - which later knowledge hasn't significantly affected how I've used and understood the word over the decades.

There are probably still some Brits who see overtones of US commie in the term even today, but it's worth noting that there was no equivalent to McCarthyism in the UK, and the British public at large never really perceived any threat from "reds under the bed".

It may also be worth noting a couple of hundred written contexts where bolshie occurs in close proximity to stroppy (obstreperous = bad-tempered and argumentative), very few of which carry any political overtones. In fact, I'd say the adjectival usage ("Why are you being so bolshie?") is effectively "orthogonal" (Def:3) to the much rarer noun usage ("They're just a bunch of bolshies") that etymological dictionaries are always so keen to tell us about.

In OP's specific context I don't think there's any "political" connotation to the usage. The reviewer just means...

although superficially the prose appears to reflect nothing more than mindless hostility/negativity (towards everything), closer examination reveals evidence of a finely nuanced writing style.

  • 2
    This illuminates the parts I need illuminated. Thanks.
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 14:32
  • @Robusto: I just couldn't pass up on the chance to use orthogonal there! :) It might be useful to consider, say, the current use of lame, which to most younger speakers has no connection whatsoever to physical disability (unlike gay, which although it's starting to be used more often with no "homophobic" intentions, probably always involves at least some awareness of the background etymology). Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 15:07
  • 3
    I don't think any British person would assume "bolshie" meant anything like "commie" except when used in a political context. For example, if you talked about your "bolshie colleague", they'd just assume you meant your unco-operative, annoying co-worker; if you referred to a left-wing politician's "bolshie friends", that might be taken as meaning their commie chums, rather than their unruly chums; if you referred to their "bolshie principals", that would almost certainly mean their communist beliefs (since it's unlikely that you mean "unruliness as a matter of principal"). Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 17:24

Definitions from online dictionaries:

  • a bolshy person often argues and makes difficulties: He's a bit bolshy these days. - [Cambridge]

  • difficult to manage; rebellious - [TFD]

  • difficult or rebellious - [Wiktionary]

  • stubborn, argumentative - [Urbandictionary]

  • deliberately creating problems and not willing to be helpful - [MacMillan]

As in my comment we tend to use it colloquially when someone is being unnecessarily aggressive, argumentative or generally 'anti-' about something.

Although I am more inclined to agree with your original line of thought and substitute bolshie for radical; radical can be defined as thorough, complete, total, comprehensive, exhaustive, sweeping, far-reaching, wide-ranging, extensive v nuanced: subtle difference or distinction in expression, meaning, response. Which actually contrasts rather well.

Bolshie is a shorten version of Bolshevism which was a radical socialist movement formed in Russia early in the 20th century. Bolshevism and its forms has been used by numerous right-wing newspapers & politicians as an accusation against their left-wing counterparts more radical elements. So much so that colloquially it has almost become a byword for radical.

  • 3
    So is part of it that someone as dogmatic as a bolshie refuses to see nuances, instead looking at the world in black and white, good and bad?
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 20:10
  • 1
    I am emphasizing that bolshie can mean radical and radical is pretty much an antonym of nuanced, therefore is contrasting to it.
    – 7caifyi
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 20:29
  • 1
    Radical and nuanced aren't really antonyms, as far as I understand them.
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 20:37
  • 3
    I disagree, Looking at their definitions IMHO they 'pretty much' are. I say 'pretty much' as we do have to give the reviewer some literary license.
    – 7caifyi
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 20:41
  • 1
    @Christopher: Hi Christopher. Nice answer! I edited your answer to make the definitions section more readable. I hope you don't mind.
    – ermanen
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 23:51

Bolshie is short Bolshevik which means socialist. It has come to mean contrarian, uncooperative, or inclined to protest; probably stemming from derisive descriptions of left wing movements that lash out against the status quo.

  • I upvote you, but with a slight hesitation. I think the truth lies somewhere between yours and @Fumble Finger's comment above.
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 23:04

I think the real key meaning is "dogmatic" or perhaps "fundamentalist" which is the "perceived" position of Bolsheviks within the socialist movements of the early 20th Century -- as opposed to the Mensheviks and/or Social Democrats, for example. Whether or not it was fair to describe Bolsheviks as dogmatic, that is perhaps how the term in the UK came to mean hard-line, aggressive, etc. Obviously, dogmatic in politics could be taken as an antonym for nuanced. Bear in mind, of course, that socialism's right-wing opponents often could not (or would not) distinguish the various strands within the left, and would call even the most faintly progressive person a "bolshie." In North America, at least since WWII, the term Commie would be the derisive diminutive that would stand in for the UK-English Bolshie. In fact, over here, I've never heard Bolshie used in the more general sense of aggressive or hard-line.

  • where is "over here"? (UK, US or somewhere else?)
    – Qsigma
    Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 16:08
  • North America (Canada & US)
    – wordloom
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 23:12

As in Bolshevik, revolutionary and ergo in your face or dissenting.


In the context above 'bolshie' means stubborn & argumentative, actively unhelpful. It does not mean radical. Although it may have originated from Bolshevik its use has transcended it's origins - i.e. people say it without necessarily having a grasp of its origins or radical left wing politics.

  • 1
    Hello Brian. Christopher has already said this. Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 2:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.