As we learned in Meaning of "bully" in the 1800s it meant first rate in the 1800s, Merriam-Webster claims it meant "sweetheart" originally while today it's "is usually one whose claims to strength and courage are based on the intimidation of those who are weaker".

How did this word pivot so much?

  • 1
    If you are "first rate" you can accumulate a loyal group of followers and will tend to gain the benefits associated with that (money, power, etc.). Those at the top tend steer the culture in a way that benefits themselves... even, maybe especially, in nature (survival of the fittest). So, the first-rate object will "bully" the lesser competition.
    – Skooba
    Jun 20, 2017 at 17:54
  • It might be useful to keep in mind that the positive version is an adjective, but the negative is the noun and its verb. Jun 21, 2017 at 0:57

1 Answer 1


The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971) has an extensive discussion of the development of bully in seemingly opposing senses:

Bully, sb. ... {Etymology obscure: possibly ad. Du. boel 'lover (of either sex)', also 'brother' [citation omitted] cf. MHG. buole, mod Ger. buhle 'lover', earlier also 'friend, kinsman'. Bailey 1721 has boolie 'beloved' as an 'old word'. Bully can hardly be identical with Sc. BILLIE, brother, but the dial. sense 2 seems to have been influenced by that word. There does not appear to be sufficient reason for supposing that the senses under branch II ['blustering gallant,' etc.] are of distinct etymology: the sense of 'hired ruffian' may be a development of that 'fine fellow, gallant' (cf. bravo); or the notion of 'lover' may have given rise to that of 'protector of a prostitute', and this to the more general sense. In the popular etymological consciousness the word is perhaps now associated with BULL sb. [in the sense of male bovine animal]}

The 1971 OED lists the following order of emergence of historical meanings of bully (with date of first cited occurrence in parentheses after each):

[Branch I] 1. A term of endearment and familiarity, orig. applied to either sex: sweetheart, darling. Later applied to men only, implying friendly admiration: , good friend, fine fellow, 'gallant'. [1531]

b. attrib. as in bully-boy. [1609]

2. dial. Brother, companion, 'mate'. [1825]

[Branch II] 3. A blustering 'gallant'; a bravo, hector, or 'swash-buckler'; now, esp. a tyrannical coward who makes himself a terror of the weak. [1688]

b. A ruffian hired for purposes of violence or intimidation. [1730]

4. spec. a. The 'gallant' or protector of a prostitute; one who lives by protecting prostitutes. [1706]

5. attrib. and comb. as bully-critic, -fop, -killer, -rake, -royster, -ruffian, -swordsman; ... [1726]

So by OED's account, what you call the "pivot" and what it refers to as "branch II" had emerged by 1688, when it appeared in Thomas Shadwell, Bury-Fair:

Gertrude. Well, I am of the opinion, that a Lady is no more to be accounted a Beauty, till she has kill'd her Man; than the Bullies think one a fine Gentleman, till he has kill'd his.

It seems quite possible (as OED indicates) that the evolution of bully away from its original sense of endearment or affection toward a sense of reprehensible intimidation and violence owes much to a false etymological connection in the popular mind of the word bully to bull in the sense of a male bovine animal.

  • You don't think that the sense of "The 'gallant' or protector of a prostitute; one who lives by protecting prostitutes" would move a word's meaning toward a sense of reprehensible intimidation and violence?
    – Judy N.
    Jun 9, 2020 at 0:35

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