From Byron's Don Juan:

One with her flush'd cheek laid on her white arm,
And raven ringlets gather'd in dark crowd
Above her brow, lay dreaming soft and warm;
And smiling through her dream, as through a cloud
The moon breaks, half unveil'd each further charm,
As, slightly stirring in her snowy shroud,
Her beauties seized the unconscious hour of night
All bashfully to struggle into light.

This is no bull, although it sounds so; for
'T was night, but there were lamps, as hath been said.
A third's all pallid aspect offer'd more
The traits of sleeping sorrow, and betray'd
Through the heaved breast the dream of some far shore
Belovéd and deplored; while slowly stray'd
(As night-dew, on a cypress glittering, tinges
The black bough) tear-drops through her eyes' dark fringes.

I immediately thought that this meant bullshit, but then I consulted dictionaries and discovered that bullshit was coined in the 20th century. Yet it clearly means "false information" here.

If not from bullshit, what does it derive from?

  • 6
    Well, it's usage meaning bullshit goes back to the 17th century, apparently. It does seem to be too coarse for a literary work, but then it is Byron.
    – Mick
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 11:54

3 Answers 3


Bull, without the attending excrement, has meant "exaggerations; lies; nonsense" since the early seventeenth century. The excrement emerged in the early twentieth, and since then bull has seemed to be a euphemism for bullshit, while historically, bullshit is actually a dysphemism of bull.

  • 11
    "Medieval Latin bulla: play, game, jest" - I never knew that! Quite interesting. Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 12:13
  • 5
    Given that the 17C was a time of conflict and war between Protestantism and Catholicism with England pretty firmly in the Protestant camp could the use of 'Bull' to mean exaggeration and nonsense be related to the Papal Bulls issued by the supposedly infallible Pope?
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 12:16
  • 9
    Does this tie up with a cock and bull story, as mentioned in Tristram Shandy?
    – PJTraill
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 14:51
  • 1
    For the records, in Italian we say bullarsi di qualcuno - "to play someone for a fool".
    – moonwave99
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 22:58
  • 4
    (the link): n.3 "false talk, fraud," Middle English, apparently from Old French bole "deception, trick, scheming, intrigue," and perhaps connected to modern Icelandic bull "nonsense." Sais christ to ypocrites ... yee ar ... all ful with wickednes, tresun and bull. ["Cursor Mundi," early 14c.]
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 3:17

Another peculiar and interesting reference was from here

with the quote

From Middle English bull (“falsehood”), of unknown origin. Possibly related to Old French boul, boule, bole (“fraud, deceit, trickery”). Popularly associated with bullshit.

I am still searching to see if I can offer any corroborating evidence for this early version of bull.

It‘s likely this word stood alone in the early Middle English era - that is, it was not a shortened form of bullshit at the time.

Also found links to the French boler or bouller (deceive) from Word Origins by John Ayto.

There are three distinct words bull in English […] finally there is ‘ludicrous or self-contradictory statement’ usually now in the phrase Irish bull, whose origins are mysterious;

The Middle English noun was bul (falsehood) and the verb was bull (mock, cheat). However, this is still referring to the 15th - 17th century.

  • 1
    Boules is also French bowling game... also the English exclamation 'balls!' Or 'that's balls!' also decries something as being untrue nonsense or 'bullshit' - maybe boules is also from 'bulla' - meaning 'play, game, jest' as mentioned above. Boules or lawn bowls (the English version) is also the kind of game where you stand around and chat - so idle talk or 'bullshit' could be present.
    – Jelila
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 22:24
  • I like your turn of phrase :) Sometimes I think of Cock or Bull as being an animal with alot of bravado but no 'fruit'... That is,... Not wool, no eggs, no milk, no babies but alot of noise and confusion (from the Bulls)
    – Grantly
    Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 1:37
  • Of course wool relates to sheep but I think you get the meaning I am projecting
    – Grantly
    Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 1:39
  • I see what you mean @Grantly
    – Jelila
    Commented Jan 21, 2018 at 6:06

It could also refer to the ornate decorative symbol on a document:

A papal bull is a type of public decree, letters patent, or charter issued by a pope of the Roman Catholic Church. It is named after the leaden seal (bulla) that was traditionally appended to the end in order to authenticate it.


  • 7
    It could also refer to the actual animal; but is there any reason to think it does? Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 0:34

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