Sometime around the year 1200, Norse speakers generously gave English speakers the word bull. Since then, bull has had a wild ride.
That original bull meant male bovine. Its Norse source may have come from a Proto-Germanic word meaning to roar. Some etymologists argue that the word boulder may have come from this same source, because water in a river roars over the boulders. Hmmm. Other etymologists argue that bull’s Norse source came from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to blow or swell.
That same Proto-Indo-European source meaning to blow or swell gave us the bull in Papal bull. It appears the Pope’s new policies (or clarifications of old policies) were documents sealed with wax, & the wax appeared to be a swelling on the paper of the document, & voila — a bull!
By 1610 or so, the original meaning of bull expanded, applying not only to male bovine, but to male alligators, elephants, & whales.
In 1711 anyone boldly grappling with a difficult situation could be said to be taking the bull by the horns.
By 1714 bull could be used to refer to an upward trend in the stock market.
In the early 1800s, a popular song introduced the idiom bull in a china shop to refer to someone recklessly using force in a delicate situation.
By 1859 a policeman could be pejoratively referred to as a bull.
There are three potential sources for the bull that means insincere or deceptive talk. Yes, indeed, it may be a shortening of the crass word bullsh**, however, some records suggest its use preceded its crasser comrade. Bull’s other possible sources include an Icelandic word meaning nonsense, an Old French word meaning deception or trick, & a Middle English word meaning false or fraudulent talk. If any of the latter three are the true source, then the four-letter word bull likely gave birth to the cruder eight-letter term bullsh**.
The word bulldoze was born during one of America’s uglier times. In the late 1800s a bulldose was a severe beating or lashing -- a dose strong enough to subdue a bull. These lashings weren’t being administered to bulls, but to humans, specifically, Black citizens trying to exercise their right to vote (specifically granted by the 15th amendment in 1870). By the 1880s, bulldose/bulldoze came to also mean to intimidate by violence. It wasn’t until 1942 that an earth-moving piece of heavy equipment was called a bulldozer.
Any thoughts on all this bull? Leave a note in the comments section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, & Etymonline.
I write for teens & tweens, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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