One hears a lot these days about the evils of “bullying,” especially among teens and pre-teens using online social media. Bullying is often spoken of as if it were some new and unspeakably horrid societal illness that must be stamped out like a forest fire. Many steps have been taken to eliminate it, seemingly without much success, and its presence on on the Internet only intensifies its animus. As much as we may deplore it, we should probably acknowledge that bullying is an inherent human behaviorial trait that we have to live with as a necessary evil.
In my schooldays, there was plenty of bullying among boys of my acquaintance. Those who were so inclined would taunt, make jokes about, and sometimes do (relatively mild) physical violence to male classmates (myself among them on occasion) who wore glasses, did well (or notably badly) in academics, were fat (or skinny), lacked the physical coordination to excel in sports, played a musical instrument, belonged to a religious denomination other than mainline Protestantism, or were perceived to be lacking in testosterone, observant of regulations, submissive to authority, or well-liked by teachers. Although I have no personal knowledge of girls’ behavior, I expect the same was true of them. Most of those who were bullied fretted about it for a while, but then got over it moved on.
Literature is filled with bullies: Creon, who badgered Antigone; Goneril and Regan, who pushed their old dad around; Jane Austen’s Emma, who was snide to Miss Bates; Jack, who bullied everyone in The Lord of the Flies; and the tormentors of Holden Caulfield’s unfortunate classmate James Castle who responds by jumping out a window to his death.
So just what is a bully? Today the word means someone who is cruel to those who are different from and presumably weaker than the bully. But originally, in the 16th century, it was just the opposite—a bully was a “sweetheart,” of either sex. It derived from the Middle Dutch broeder (“brother”) and Middle High German buole (“brother”). Bully is cognate with the modern German Buhle (“lover”).
Over the centuries, the meaning of bully deteriorated, first meaning a “fine fellow,” then a “blusterer or a braggart” and finally by the late 17th century, “harasser of the weak.” This may have been influenced by the similarity of the word bull (“male bovine”), although its root word is entirely different. One etymologist theorizes that the connection between “lover” and “ruffian” may have originated from “protector of a prostitute,” which was an early 18th-century meaning of bully.
As a throwback to the earlier, positive sense of the word, “bully” is also an expression that means “admirable, good, superb,” as in the expression “Bully for you!” or “bully pulpit,” a coinage of Theodore Roosevelt’s referring to the presidency as a platform from which to advocate policy.
Not surprisingly, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is often bullied by fellow poets, but usually he is too deep into the Chardonnay to realize it, so their ridicule never fazes him.
There once was a student who was clever and quick
At reading and writing and ‘rithmetic.
One day he was bullied, and he told them to stop,
Then he told the teacher, and she called a cop.
The cop hauled the bullies straight down to the jail,
And the judge threw the book at them, granting no
The bullies have promised that they’ll mend their
When they get of jail in about thirty days.