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According to the American Heritage Dictionary in the entry for "critter", the word "bull" was once highly taboo (mainly in Ozarks).

What did it mean?

Why was it taboo?

Does the word still hold the same meaning and strength somewhere?

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  • Well, there is the obvious fact that "bull" is often used as a less-offensive version of "bullshit", but I doubt that that is the factor at work here.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 13:38

1 Answer 1

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The clue comes in the actual quote:

Word History: In many American regional dialects, the word bull, meaning "adult male bovine," was once highly taboo. When speaking in mixed company, people would substitute a variety of words and call the bull a booman, brute, gentleman cow, or surly. In the Northeast in particular, critter was a common word used to avoid saying bull, both by itself and in combinations like beef critter and cross critter.

It was taboo as the only point of a bull was to inseminate the cows. So obvious is this that there was a verb "to bull" (now obsolete) that meant just that:

OED

bull, v.1

†1. a. transitive. Said of a bull: to gender with (the cow). Obsolete.

1659 J. Howell To Knowingest Kind of Philologers in Proverbs sig. a4, in Lex. Tetraglotton (1660) He that bulls the Cow must keep the Calf.

1.b. intransitive. Of the cow: to take the bull, to desire the bull. Also to go a bulling. Obsolete.

?1523 J. Fitzherbert Bk. Husbandry f. xxviiiv The damme of the calfe shall bull agayne.

1601 P. Holland tr. Pliny Hist. World I. 224 Kine commonly..seeke the fellow, and goe a bulling againe.

This sexual implication of the word was simply "too much" for genteel ladies and euphemisms were introduced.

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    Interesting that "To bull" meant "To inseminate a cow naturally". In many British dialects the verb "To tup" derived from the noun "tup", which was (and I believe still is) an alternative to "ram", meant "To inseminate a sheep naturally" but I've never heard of the verb "to bull" except as meaning "to obfuscate and confuse with verbose speech and doubtful facts". "To tup" was also used to refer to human sexual activity, particularly the activities of young men out on the on the pull. Perhaps "to bull" had acquired the same meaning in the Ozarks.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 20:13
  • @BoldBen Is there any relationship between "tup" and the Yiddish word "schtup"?
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 18:43
  • @Barmar I shouldn't think so, in English tup is very old, at least 14th century and probably of Scots origin and possibly Norwegian: OED: "Apparently etymologically tōp , which would regularly give toop /tuːp/ in northern English, and /tʏp/ or /tøp/ in Scots: compare bóc , bōk , book , Scots buik . (Skeat suggests that it may be a transferred use of Norwegian and Swedish tupp ‘cock’, said to be the same."
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 19:49
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    @Greybeard I don't think that the age of the work 'tup' necessarily rules out a connection. I think it unlikely that 'tup' is derived from 'sctup' but it is definitely possible that both words have been derived from a common root. Both Yiddish and English are living languages that have been modified almost continously over a long period and both have absorbed many external influences. I doubt that either word is the parent of the other but it is definitely possible that they are siblings or close cousins.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 23:30
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    Not wishing to be too indelicate but the word "bull" has a closely related meaning in BDSM and similar communities. urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=bull
    – Fraser Orr
    Commented Jun 6, 2023 at 3:49

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