Language is always political, but my interests here are linguistic, not partisan. (And my interests here are little late for our today’s news cycles.) Twenty years ago, if a governor and party figurehead uttered in a press conference, “I’m not a bully,” those words may have spoken in jest. Now, in 2014, they are used earnestly. For good reason. Bullying names a concept that has taken on its due seriousness. (I’ll defer to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined for the rest of the cultural analysis.) And this repositions the word bully in its oh-so fascinating history.
Bully has not changed too much in form from its root in the Middle Dutch boele (cf. Middle High German buole), but its meaning has sure endured an atomic wedgie. In Dutch, boele, apparently a diminutive of broeder, could mean “brother,” “lover,” or “friend,” and could be used, the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) states, as a term of endearment or reproach.
In 16th-century English, bully meant “sweetheart” or “fine fellow.” The next century, the ODEE explains, it meant a “bravo” or a “swashbuckler,” then “tyrannical coward,” and, yet later, a “hired ruffian” and “protector of prostitutes.” Skeat defines its modern meaning as a “noisy rough fellow” while Partridge gives us the delightful “blusterous browbeater.”
Seems that bully got a taste of its own medicine over the years.
What might explain this semantic shifting? Weekley offers that bully might have been influenced either by its association with bull or with the Dutch bulderen, “to bluster,” although I’m not sure how English would have registered that. Whatever the case, this sense development is pretty incredible, although there is a logic in it. Silly and nice display similar (if not more astonishing) about-faces, and words like awesome and amazing have been brought down from their loftier heights to the mundane or the inane, as some would have it.
Not too long ago, I think we as a society wrongly excused bullying as a schoolyard fact of life, as Nelson Muntz’ Ha ha!.
Now, it’s a centerpiece of character education at schools, of political pressers in the Garden State. I’ll be curious to see how its increased use–and the increased importance of the concept it names–shapes its future evolution.