Bully is a word we all know, right? And it’s certainly not something we’d ever mean as a compliment. Which is why I was utterly confounded when I saw that the original meaning of bully was, in fact…sweetheart.

Say what?


The word dates in English back to the 1530s, and it could be used for either gender. Etymologists aren’t entirely certain where it originated, but their best guess is that it came from the Dutch boel, which could mean either “romantic love interest” or “brother.” Boel is probably a dimunitive of broeder.

So what happened??

Well, the word followed a course that is strangely not unusual for words that are used as endearments, thanks to our propensity for mockery and sarcasm (way to go, humans). In the 1600s, bully could be used to mean “a fine fellow.” But you know, it just doesn’t take long for such a term to be applied with something less than sincerity. By the 1680s, it had gone through the meaning of “blusterer” and had begun to mean “harasser of the weak.” The best guess as to how this happened is that chaps would defend their sweethearts…even when others didn’t think those sweethearts were worthy of defense. So what you’d call your sweetheart, you begin to be called, and then are called it mockery, and then the mocking word gets applied to those who do the mocking.

A bit of the original happy connotation is still preserved in the adjective form that means “worthy, jolly, admirable,” which enjoyed a bit of a resurgance in populartiy in the 1800s. The expression “Bully for you!” as “Bravo!” is from 1864.

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