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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.

Chance for a Spinster. — A young man in Aroostook County, Maine, advertising for a wife, speaks of himself as follows: "I am eighteen years old, have a good set of teeth, and believe in Andy Johnson, the star-spangled banner, and the 4th of July. I have taken up a State lot, cleared up eighteen acres last year, and seeded ten of it down. My buckwheat looks first-rate, and the oats and potatoes are bully. I have got nine sheep, a two-year-old bull, and two heifers, besides a house and barn. I want to get married. I want to buy bread-and-butter, hoop-skirts, and waterfalls for some person of the female persuasion during life. That's what's the matter with me. But I don't know how to do it."

Source: Harper's Weekly, September 2, 1865

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  • Bully means "good". You would surely have heard "bully for you", which means "good for you". – Fattie Jun 20 '17 at 16:30
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jul 9 '17 at 17:06
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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.

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    "Bully" was also an exclamation of admiration or approval, as in "bully for him!". It seems like this was probably related. – Barmar Jun 20 '17 at 16:12
  • What is a bully-boat? – Fattie Jun 20 '17 at 16:32
  • @Fattie It's apparently a specific type of boat. Like this one for sale. – Laurel Jun 20 '17 at 16:39
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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.

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    As a folk music lover, describing fellow sailors as "bullies" or "bully boys" comes up frequently in sea shanties too. For example traditionalmusic.co.uk/sea-shanty/Blow_Bullies_Blow.htm Since shanties were largely an artifact of the 1800s, that places them contemporaneously with the article. – Graham Jun 20 '17 at 14:05
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    @Graham So, “Bully in the Alley” was probably not originally referring to a state of inebriation, but to a sailor — who happened to be so inebriated? – can-ned_food Jun 21 '17 at 7:36
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    @can-ned_food Almost certainly to a sailor, given that it's a shanty, wouldn't you think? although like many folk songs, the actual origin is obscure and it's no more than speculation. I thought I should mention this source of the word though, because although the old meaning of the word is dead in current usage, shanties with the old meaning of the word are very much still alive in folk clubs around the US and UK. So it's a way in which you can still meet the word today. – Graham Jun 21 '17 at 9:48
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Bully -- ODO

  1. (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

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