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The Evolution of “Bully”: From Endearment to Intimidation


Language has a fascinating way of evolving over time, with words taking on new meanings and nuances. The word “bully” is a prime example of this evolution. From a term of endearment to a symbol of intimidation, the history of “bully” is a journey through the changing tides of language and culture.

The Origin of “Bully”:

The word “bully” can be traced back to the Dutch word “boel,” which originally meant “lover” or “brother.” In the 16th and 17th centuries, “bully” was used in English to describe a sweetheart or a close companion. It was a term of affection, a far cry from its current connotation.

A Timeline of “Bully”:

16th-17th Century: A Term of Endearment

  • “Bully” is used to refer to a fine fellow or a good friend.

  • Example: “He’s a jolly good bully, that one.”

18th Century: Shifting to Bravado

  • The word starts to describe those who exhibit swagger, bravado, or boastful behavior.

  • Example: “He’s quite the bully with his confident demeanor.”

19th Century: The Negative Connotation

  • “Bully” begins to take on a darker meaning, representing someone who uses strength or influence to intimidate or harm others.

  • Example: “Watch out for that bully; he’s causing trouble in the pub.”

20th Century: Schoolyard and Workplace Bullying

  • “Bully” is associated with those who engage in schoolyard bullying and workplace harassment.

  • Example: “Bullying in schools is a serious issue; we must address it.”

21st Century: The Era of Cyberbullying

  • “Bully” becomes linked with online harassment and cyberbullying.

  • Example: “Online bullies can be as harmful as physical bullies, causing emotional distress.”

Slang Usage of “Bully” Throughout History:

  • British slang has often embraced the word “bully” in various contexts.

  • “Bully pulpit” is a term referring to a position that provides one with the opportunity to speak out and be heard, often in a commanding or influential way.


The journey of the word “bully” is a testament to the malleability of language. From its Dutch origins as a term of endearment to its evolution into a symbol of intimidation, the history of “bully” reflects shifts in culture, societal attitudes, and the complex nature of language itself. As with many words, understanding its history reminds us of the power of language to convey evolving meanings and reflect our changing world.

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