The Word "Bully" Used To Mean ... "Sweetheart"?!

The word bully is first recorded around the mid-1500s, when it actually meant—wait for it—“sweetheart.” What?!

Smoothly step over to these common grammar mistakes that trip many people up. Good luck!
Question 1 of 7
Fill in the blank: I can’t figure out _____ gave me this gift.

Origin of bully

First recorded in 1530–40; from Middle Dutch boele “lover”


bul·ly·a·ble, adjectiveun·bul·lied, adjectiveun·bul·ly·ing, adjective

Other definitions for bully (2 of 4)

[ bool-ee ]
/ ˈbʊl i /

of or relating to a pit bull or bulldog: The shelter has a number of bully breed mix puppies available for adoption.

Origin of bully

First recorded in 1880–85; bull(dog) + -y1

Other definitions for bully (3 of 4)

[ bool-ee ]
/ ˈbʊl i /


Origin of bully

First recorded in 1750–55; from French bouilli, short for boeuf bouilli “boiled meat”; see origin at boil1, beef

Other definitions for bully (4 of 4)

[ bool-ee ]
/ ˈbʊl i /

noun, plural bul·lies.
Soccer. a desperate, freewheeling scramble for the ball by a number of players, usually in the goal area.
Field Hockey. a method of putting the ball into play in which two opponents, facing each other, tap their sticks on the ground near the ball and then make contact with each other's sticks over the ball three times, after which each tries to gain possession of the ball.

Origin of bully

First recorded in 1860–65; of obscure origin
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What does bully mean?

A bully is a person who harasses, abuses, intimidates, or coerces people, especially those with less power than they have or those considered weaker or vulnerable in some way. The word often implies that such behavior is repeated or habitual. 

Bully can also be a verb meaning to treat people in this way (to act as a bully toward them), as in The man who used to bully his classmates in school is now teaching children how not to bully others. Someone who is treated in this way is said to be bullied. The act of treating people in this way is called bullying

Bullies are primarily associated with school settings involving kids, but adults can be considered bullies as well. The most familiar form of a bully depicted in popular culture is the neighborhood or schoolyard bully, usually a physically strong or large child or teenager who uses their size to bully smaller, younger, or more timid kids. Famous fictional bullies that fit this profile include Biff Tannen from Back to the Future and Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons. However, the understanding of what constitutes bullying has evolved and broadened to encompass behavior that involves not just physical but emotional abuse and manipulation. 

Many studies have shown that bullying has long-lasting emotional and psychological effects, and many organized efforts and campaigns are devoted to preventing bullying in schools and elsewhere. The word cyberbully is used as a noun and a verb in the context of bullying that happens online. 

Bully can also be used a bit more generally to mean to force or coerce someone into doing something, as in The trainer bullied me into signing up for an expensive gym membership

An entirely different (and much less common) use of bully is as an adjective to describe something as great or excellent, as in What a bully day! It’s also used as an interjection meaning “Great!” or “Well done!” as in Bully for you: you got all A’s on your report card! These uses of the word are now typically considered old-fashioned. 

Example: Our school has a zero tolerance policy for bullying—bullies are immediately suspended.

Where does bully come from?

The first records of bully come from around 1530. It comes from the Middle Dutch word boele, which means “lover.” At that time, bully was used in English to mean “sweetheart.” Its use then became more general, coming to mean “fine fellow,” and, eventually, the opposite: “swaggering coward.” Bully began to be used in this sense around the 1700s. 

Bully as an interjection meaning “Great!” is especially associated with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, and in fact he is thought to have introduced the term bully pulpit.

Did you know … ?

What are some other forms related to bully?

  • bullying (continuous tense verb, noun)

What are some synonyms for bully?

What are some words that share a root or word element with bully

What are some words that often get used in discussing bully?

How is bully used in real life?

Bullies and bullying are primarily associated with children, but the word is also used in reference to adults. Bullying is treated as a serious problem in schools and online, especially due to the lasting effects it can have on those who are bullied.

Try using bully!

True or False? 

The word bully always refers to a child.

How to use bully in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for bully (1 of 2)

Word Origin for bully

C16 (in the sense: sweetheart, hence fine fellow, hence swaggering coward): probably from Middle Dutch boele lover, from Middle High German buole, perhaps childish variant of bruoder brother

British Dictionary definitions for bully (2 of 2)

/ (ˈbʊlɪ) /

noun plural -lies
any of various small freshwater fishes of the genera Gobiomorphus and Philynodon of New ZealandAlso called (NZ): pakoko, titarakura, toitoi

Word Origin for bully

C20: short for cockabully
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012