I know for a fact that the word "bossy" is quite controversial and could be somewhat problematic in some situations?

Since I'm not a native speaker I don't fully get the nuance of this word. I thought it was just "boss" + "-y" so I found it so useful to use in everyday conversation at first. But I saw quite a lot of people in my country (whose first language is not English of course) say you should never use the word.

But then I heard Ariana Grande's song Moonlight where it goes:

He's so bossy, he makes me dance-

And now it's so confusing? Because I know that the singer is also a passionate feminist. So my question is, should I avoid using the word "bossy" no matter what?

closed as off-topic by TimLymington, Nigel J, JEL, curiousdannii, jimm101 Sep 5 '18 at 10:54

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    Have you checked a dictionary? Please do so if you haven't already and edit your question to mention what you found and still don't understand. Thanks. – Laurel Sep 4 '18 at 18:27
  • Of course you can use the word. It's a word that's used all the time. You just need to use it in the right context. But you haven't provided any context for your confusion. (Aside from a song lyric, which shouldn't be something that determines its normal use). – Jason Bassford Sep 4 '18 at 18:44
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    @Laurel The nuances he's talking about are not mentioned in any dictionary. – Mitch Sep 4 '18 at 19:50
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    I tidied your post up a bit. If you want to avoid your question being closed, I'd suggest adding in any sources you can find online that talk a little about this – Azor Ahai Sep 4 '18 at 22:31
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    @ab2 please post that comment as an answer! – Kat Sep 4 '18 at 23:53

'Bossy' means that one is acting in an arrogant manner, more of a caricature of a boss, acting like people should do what they suggest (when in fact they do not have 'boss' status). (which is to say a bossy boss is probably not a likeable boss, but you should probably do what they say. a bossy person who is not your boss is just annoying).

The word 'bossy' is a little informal, but it has the same taboo status as, say, 'fat'. That means it doesn't have any taboo status as is, but if you call someone that, or refer to someone as that and they hear it, it is usually in a negative direction. The word is most appropriate to describe a situation where one person, who is a colleague, makes a suggestion (or more than one) in an expectant manner.

Also, in the past 10-15 years or so (probably longer), its use in the US at least has become somewhat problematic as it has accrued a nuance of disparagement particularly against women. That is, when used for a woman, it has the feeling that for the supposed exact same characteristics a man would be called 'having leadership qualities'. Using 'bossy' likely shows a double standard. Other examples might be a man called 'headstrong' but a woman 'bitchy'.

It would not be as disparaging currently to call a man 'bossy' because it wouldn't have the double standard overtones. But for a woman it is (certainly nowadays) considered disparaging.

Just as the word 'fat' has no taboo (unlike 'bitch' or 'shit'), 'bossy' has no taboo, but you're advised in US culture not to call someone fat or bossy to their face. Well, that's a little too flat. 'Bossy' is a tiny bit taboo.

In non-native contexts, saying 'you should never use this word' is a bit strong. There are similar words, like 'hysterical' or 'shrill' or 'spinster', which have both a female and disparaging connotation and may be taken badly. You probably shouldn't be using any of these words for a woman, but they're not nearly words that would be bleeped out/censored in the media.

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    I'm upvoting this because I didn't know that the word had acquired gender-specific pejorative tendencies. Some words, such as biddy-like and schoolmarmish, are inherently gender-specific; others, like the noun scold, owe their sexism (to some extent) to old technical usage (in the case of scold, the term was used in eighteenth-century statutory law to refer to certain behavior by women). But I've always thought of bossy as being primarily a child's word, used in the context of other (usually older) children, regardless of gender. Thanks for the interesting discussion, Mitch. – Sven Yargs Sep 4 '18 at 20:52
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    I agree with @SvenYargs, "bossy" is often used by children, addressed to other children. In Britain, children say "bossy boots". In the USA, a common childhood protest is, "You're not the boss of me." – Theresa Sep 4 '18 at 21:23
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    Adding to the confusion for non-native speakers is the fact that in recent years, a new common use-case for "boss" and "bossy" has developed, primarily via social media / meme sharing (skewing towards the young but not restricted exclusively to young people) in which people will say in boast: "Doing XX like a boss!" where XX can be a range of different activities or tasks - leading to a non-pejorative use of "boss" or "bossy" which is similar in some ways to other "reclaiming of pejorative phrases": the appropriate positive use case is extremely tightly restricted and abstruse. – GerardFalla Sep 4 '18 at 21:47
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    @GerardFalla Minor changes to words can affect meaning considerably. 'Boss' and 'bossy', while sharing a lot about being a boss, have very different uses and connotations. I'm limiting myself here to simply 'bossy'. – Mitch Sep 4 '18 at 22:09
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    @GerardFalla I have never heard "bossy" be used to mean "like a boss." – Azor Ahai Sep 4 '18 at 22:32

Bossy woman here.

"Bossy" is a colloquial, and respectable, term for a cow, but I know that isn't what you are asking!

It isn't fair, but I advise you never to call a woman "bossy" if you want to remain on good terms with her -- even if, especially if, she is bossy.

If you are a woman, and you know the woman very well, and you both belong to a set whose members jokingly refer to themselves as bitches and similar words, you can get away with it...but this is ultra informal.

If you are a man, don't, ever. It will sound as though you are putting the uppity woman in her place.

More generally, a good rule of thumb is: if you aren't a native speaker, be very careful -- as you know -- about using potentially offensive terms unless you are willing to burn your bridges.

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    I thought that was Bessy. Maybe it's an AmE/BrE split? – RonJohn Sep 5 '18 at 5:09
  • @RonJohn: I assume your comment is referring to it being a "colloquial name for a cow"? If so, I agree; I'd say "Bessie" is a stereotypical cow's name; "Bossy" is not. – V2Blast Sep 5 '18 at 5:24
  • @V2Blast read all the definitions in the Cambridge Dictionary link provided by ab2. One of them (surprisingly, it says "US INFORMAL") is a cow. – RonJohn Sep 5 '18 at 5:54
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    Ah, I see it on Wiktionary: "(US, informal, dated) A cow or calf." According to the etymology listed there: "Diminutive of dialectal English boss, as used in the term boss-calf (which, like buss-calf, is a variant form of boose-calf, a calf kept in a boose (“stall”))." It's not an actual name for a cow, but rather a dated term for one. – V2Blast Sep 5 '18 at 6:24
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    'Uppity' is another one of those words that has bigoted associations, but rather for African-Americans, at least in the American South. – Mitch Sep 5 '18 at 12:39

I might gently chide my pre-schooler child to not be so bossy...if I used it on an adult, I would be pointedly comparing them to a pushy pre-schooler. It also tends to be a gendered insult: A man and a woman can both behave the same way, but the behavior that is seen as appropriate for a male leader is deemed "bossy" when done by a woman.

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