What did "bully" mean in the 1800s?
When describing how good his field is, a young man wrote:
My buckwheat looks first-rate, and the oats and potatoes are bully.
Source: Harper's Weekly, September 2, 1865
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The relevant definition from OED is:
Capital, first-rate, ‘crack’.
This is most certainly the definition you are looking for as, all of the citations are 1844-1875 (although the earliest of said citations are for "bully-boat"). Also, it's listed as originally American, so that fits with the "young man in Aroostook County, Maine".
A similar definition can be found in A Glossary of Words & Phrases Usually Relating to the U.S.:
Fine, capital. A low word, used in the same manner as the English use the word crack
What's cool about this source is it was published in 1860, a mere five years before the usage in your clipping.
J. E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) notes that bully in the sense of "splendid or excellent" is considerably older than the United States:
bully adj. very fine; splendid; excellent; (obs.) best. [Earliest two listed citations:] ca.1599 [Thomas] Dekker, Shoemaker's Holiday V v: Yet Ile shave it off...to please my bully king. 1681 in OED: From such Bully fishers, this Book expects no other reception.
The original source of the "1681" quote is the preface to the 1688 edition of James Chetham, Angler's Vade Mecum, where the usage seems to be sarcastic.
Bully -- ODO
- (US, informal) adj. Very good; excellent.
the statue really looked bully
This meaning fits the context given.
My buckwheat looks first-rate, and the oats and potatoes are bully