In various sea shanties the term "bully boys" comes up now and again. Here for example in The Wellerman, first verse:

There once was a ship that put to sea
The name of the ship was the Billy of Tea
The winds blew up, her bow dipped down
Oh blow, my bully boys, blow (huh)

Or in the title and text of Blow, my bully boys, blow, for which I have trouble finding the lyrics currently, but there is a record of it in the Library of Congress from 1908.

Then there is Bully Boys, here in a version by Alan Doyle. I'm not actually sure if this is an older shanty or a newer creation, but if the latter it seems at least to be created in the style of shanties from the nineteenth century.

And it’s Row Me Bully Boys
We’re in a hurry boys
We got a long way to go
We’ll sing and we’ll dance and bid Farewell to France
And it’s Row me Bully Boys Row

Now, I assume that the meaning of the word in the time where those sea shanties were created (e.g. ca. 1860 for the Wellerman) was different to what it is today (i.e. the ruffian/thug/violence meaning).

Is the meaning the same as mentioned in the answers to this question Meaning of "bully" in the 1800s - i.e. Capital, first-rate, ‘crack’? Or is there another meaning, e.g. from the nautical/navy context as to what exactly is meant by "bully boys"?

  • It might help if you can quote the lines from Wellerman, and other sea shanties you have seen the term in, and indicate your full research. I think in general you have the meaning correct: no different from all the songs about good men, hearty men, etc, but it has also since the 18th century referred to ruffians and thugs (the modern sense of bully).
    – Stuart F
    Nov 19, 2021 at 15:21
  • They sound like hearty sailors of fun-filled energy. Nov 19, 2021 at 15:56
  • My assumption was that it was those seamen on the boat manning the belaying pins, but that's just my head knowledge; casual google search doesn't connect them besides both being used in a book. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belaying_pin
    – user662852
    Nov 19, 2021 at 16:23
  • 1
    The Wellerman isn't a sea shanty, it's a folk sea song or sea ballad.
    – nnnnnn
    Nov 20, 2021 at 4:07
  • 1
    @nnnnnn Wikipedia at least recognises the broadened modern usage. Nov 20, 2021 at 19:12

4 Answers 4


bully, adj comes from the attributive use of the noun "bully" - now obsolete in this sense, except in the phrase "Bully for you" = "Well that is excellent news for you - well done":


bully, n1

I. A term of endearment and related uses.

†1. a. A term of endearment and familiarity, originally applied to either sex: sweetheart, darling. Later applied to men only, implying friendly admiration: good friend, fine fellow, ‘gallant’. Often prefixed as a sort of title to the name or designation of the person addressed, as in Shakespeare, ‘bully Bottom’, ‘bully doctor’. Obsolete exc. archaic.

?1548 J. Bale Comedy Thre Lawes Nature ii. sig. Biiijv The woman hath a wytt, And by her gere can sytt, Though she be sumwhat olde. It is myne owne swete bullye, My muskyne and my mullye.

1753 S. Richardson Hist. Sir Charles Grandison IV. xv. 115 I haue promised to be with the sweet Bully early in the morning of her important day.

b. attributive, as in bully-boy.

1609 T. Ravenscroft Deuteromelia 6 He that is a bully boy, come pledge me on the ground.

1880 T. E. Webb tr. J. W. von Goethe Faust i. ii. 53 My over jolly bully-boy, let be.

2. dialect. Brother, companion, ‘mate’.

1825 J. T. Brockett Gloss. North Country Words (at cited word) Now generally used among keelmen and pitmen to designate their brothers, as bully Jack, bully Bob, etc. Probably derived from the obsolete word boulie, beloved.

1863 Tyneside Songs 61 Marrows, cries a bully, aw've an idea..We'll find Sir John Franklin.


According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang 'bully' has had many meanings.

a good fellow, a companion (from 1538)

a thug hired for purposes of violence or intimidation (1669)

a pimp, a procurer (1640)

a braggart, a boaster (1672)

a prostitute’s client (1734)

None of them are adjectives. According to Lexico the adjective exists only in the US.

Perhaps it was simply the assonance of the words that gave rise to the bully-boys pairing.

Incidentally, there are as many meanings for the word cully, with which 'bully' is regularly rhymed. I wonder whether today's (well heeled!) shanty-singers rhyme bully with 'pulley' or with 'sully'.

I don't think Green gives any specifically nautical meanings, but you may know the shanty whose chorus goes, "Haul on the bowline we're bowlin' home" (the two words sounding identical in some dialects.) That and Sven Yargs's answer here - about the boling knot - make me wonder if bully-boys might have been bowline-boys or boling-boys.


I found another reference at https://www.goatlocker.org/resources/nav/trivia.htm:

Bully Boy - Bully boys, a term prominent in Navy chanties and poems, means in its strictest sense, beef eating Sailors. Sailors of the Colonial Navy had a daily menu of an amazingly elastic substance called bully beef, actually beef jerky. The term appeared so frequently on the messdeck that it naturally lent its name to the sailors who had to eat it. As an indication of the beef's texture and chewability, it was also called salt junk, alluding to the rope yarn used for caulking the ship's seams.

While this definition may be better than my intuition, what matches the song better would be a name for the wind. 'The bully boys' might refer to some opportune winds - be it tailwind or wind from some absolute direction that still help the ship get forward. Here is a link that could support that idea: https://www.windaction.org/posts/36028-wind-turbine-bully-boys-anger

  • The wind action link gives no evidence for that position, referring to "bully boy" tactics employed by someone opposed to the wind farm. Oct 12, 2023 at 9:31

It seems to me the progression of the term bully boys began as an endearing term for close friends then possibly became an expression for one’s gang of thugs. You might relate it to having the local Godfather tell you he was sending some of his “friends” to pick you up. It would naturally morph into the shortened term “bully,” meaning one who uses his strength to overpower you by brute force. What once meant friend, now means enemy. This is what makes sense to me.

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    Why does it seem so to you? Can you share your reasoning?
    – Joachim
    Jan 12, 2022 at 16:41

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