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The Biggest Bully on the Block… Any Block

Etymological History of bully  (n.)

1538, originally "sweetheart," applied to either sex, from Du. boel "lover, brother," probably dim. of M.H.G. buole "brother," of uncertain origin (cf. Ger. buhle "lover"). Meaning deteriorated 17c. through "fine fellow," "blusterer," to "harasser of the weak" (1653). Perhaps this was by infl. of bull, but a connecting sense between "lover" and "ruffian" may be in "protector of a prostitute," which was one sense of bully (though not specifically attested until 1706). The verb is first attested 1710. The expression meaning "worthy, jolly, admirable" (esp. in 1864 U.S. slang bully for you!) is first attested 1681, and preserves an earlier, positive sense of the word.[1]

There’s a whole epic novel captured in the history of the word “bully.” How did a word for sweetheart turn into a word for pimp (aka protector of a prostitute)? How does a word for pimp also mean worthy, jolly, admirable?

Several pieces about bullying have appeared in MatriFocus over the years. We’ve focused on girl-group behaviors. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has become a worse and worse international bully, sometimes using the finesse of an alpha girl (playing nice while mercilessly wielding power for her own ends) and sometimes showing the open aggression of the biggest boy on the playground and his buddies.

I’ve read that nothing can be done about a bully in a group. The group falls apart or doesn’t, but the purposes of the group fail, for sure.

  • A presidential candidate steals an election, with approval by the supreme court, and walks into office unchallenged. What a fine fellow.
  • A violent event serves as an excuse for the long-planned invasion of a country with oil resources. That would have to be bull.
  • A CIA agent is outed as political retaliation for her husband’s opinions, and the fall guy is pardoned. There’s that connection between lover (of his country) and ruffian (in his behavior).
  • Other countries sign the Kyoto accords, but the U.S. goes right on giving lip service to the environment and polluting like crazy. By the way, have you deeply considered the phrase “lip service”? So here’s a sweetheart deal with the oil and power companies.
  • Some people insist that the Bill of Rights is still in force. (“In force” is an interesting term, too.) From Guantanamo to airports to your private phone, the government is treating the Bill of Rights like an 18th century cocktail napkin. Is this where brother becomes harasser of the weak?
  • There used to be something called a “balance of power” among the major parts of government. I for one found it reassuring that they’d all have to go nuts at the same time to get us in maximum trouble. Now, through careful maneuvering over seven years, the executive branch pulls the strings, even to the imposition of martial law for any specious reason. Unfortunately this is more than bluster.
  • The financial outfits are set up so that profit flows to the investors and loss flows to the public.[2] How worthy, jolly, and admirable of them.

If Constitutional scholars are saying it will take three generations to recover from what’s happened in the past 7 years, won’t constant wars be a great distraction? And will any president be willing to surrender these seductive powers?

digitized image in grays and blacks of  someone looking in a mirrorI usually write about the personal that is political. Now, I guess, I’m taking the political personally.

An alpha bully, in any group, requires sycophantic betas and other admiring characters, as well as some omegas to kick around. A group with a bully fails because the others don’t or can’t reject their roles. Things they try:

  • For teenagers, changing schools sometimes works as an escape. I know a couple of people who are planning to change countries, but it’s not a common solution.
  • For women’s groups, it’s possible to drop out (unless you earn your living with those people, live in a small town, can’t let go of the group’s original purpose, or get hooked on the longing to change things from within). I know many people who choose to drop out — moving from one marriage, church, job, or political party to the next. It’s tricky, though, to avoid falling into the same pattern in the next situation. Bullying is an effective training technique (consider boot camp).
  • Some have tried to exclude or encapsulate the bully. Even if that works for a while, a bully-trained group will probably find itself pushing another bully to the fore, though they swore they would never stand for that again.
  • A friend told me the technique she’d been taught. “Treat that person (the bully) the way you treat the people who deliver the mail. You’re usually at work, so you don’t see them that often. If you’re near the mailbox when they come, you wave or say hello, and they go on to the next delivery. That’s it.” For somebody trying to entrap, coerce, or spin you, this makes you hard to get hold of. This sounds great for one-on-one problems, but I’m afraid governments flourish in bad ways when the constituents keep their distance.
  • Another method worked for a friend who encountered a predatory bully at the job she’d worked toward for years. With some coaching, she started wearing a full-length invisible mirror to bounce negative and controlling energy back to the sender. The bully gradually lost his authority over her and other people.
  • There’s a hacker who loves to use the web to find and attack the vulnerable. His idea is that if people became invulnerable to other people’s actions and opinions, there’d be no point in abusing them. As a worldwide solution, this is desperately creepy. Yet he has a point: Famous people either learn this lesson or eventually fall apart.

Becoming invulnerable to a bully while staying engaged with what we care about — it sounds hard enough to accomplish in a coven or a committee, much less a nation. We’ll seem disloyal (though we’re not), evasive (aka hard to spin), inappropriate (acting with more power than we’ve been given). We’ll be taking our lives in our hands — a sensible idea that acknowledges the risks. Bully for us.


  • "bully." Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 8/2/2008.
  • A guest said this in June or July 2008 on National Public Radio‚Äôs financial report, Marketplace.

Graphics Credits

  • in the looking glass, courtesy of Henry Broadbent-Jones.
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MatriFocus Cross-Quarterly
is a seasonal web journal (zine) for Goddess Women and others interested in Goddess Lore and Scholarship, Goddess Religion (ancient and contemporary), Feminist Spirituality, Women's Mysteries, Paganism and Neopaganism, Earth-based Religions, Witchcraft, Dianic Wicca and other Wiccan Traditions, the Priestess Path, Goddess Art, Women's Culture, Women's Health, Natural Healing, Mythology, Female Shamanism, Consciousness, Community, Cosmology, and Women's Creativity.

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