Intermediate+ Word of the Day: bully

bully (noun, verb, adjective) /ˈbʊli/ LISTEN

No one likes being bullied.

A bully is someone who intimidates, bothers, mocks, or hurts others, usually smaller or weaker people. The verb to bully is what bullies do, intimidate, bother, mock, and hurt others. It also means ‘to be arrogant and overbearing.’ However, despite its negative connotations, in US English, as an adjective, and informally, bully means ‘very good’ or ‘high spirited,’ though this use is now dated. As an interjection, usually in the expression “bully for you” it means ‘well done!’ (in UK English, this expression is now only used ironically).

Example sentences

  • All the kids at my school were terrified of the bully.
  • Rick is a terrible boss; he is always bullying his staff.
  • Sandra can't take no for an answer; if you try to refuse her, she just keeps bullying until she gets her own way.
  • Everyone had a bully time at the party.
  • You had a great night's sleep? Well, bully for you! Personally, I didn't sleep a wink, because you were snoring so loudly!

In pop culture

Bullying is part of every culture and something that is beginning to be taken much more seriously. People often used to think that bullying was part of growing up and would teach their children the mantra “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Of course, words do hurt people, sometimes much more than physical injuries.

Watch the comedy team of Key & Peele handle the very serious problem of bullying with a light touch. Jordan Peele, the bully, says all the things that usually go unsaid.

Additional information

Bully or bully beef is tinned or pickled beef.

Did you know?

Interestingly, despite its current negative meanings, the word bully originally meant ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart.’ It was a term of endearment that you could use for both men and women. Then the meaning changed a little bit; now only applied to men, it meant ‘a gallant’—someone with a bit of swagger about him, someone that others would admire. You might find this meaning if you ever read Shakespeare in English, normally used like a title in front of someone’s name—for example, Bottom the Weaver, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is referred to as ‘O sweet bully Bottom.’ Of course, men like this could be a bit larger than life and perhaps demand a lot of attention and, because of this, might make others feel small and insignificant. So, the meaning gradually changed over time to the meaning we have today.

Other forms

bullying (noun)


Bully dates back to the 1530s. It was originally another way to say ‘sweetheart,’ and could be applied to both sexes. It came into English from the Dutch boel, which could mean either ‘lover’ or ‘brother,’ and was probably a diminutive of the Middle Dutch broeder (brother). As such, it can be traced back to the Proto-Germanic brothar, and the Proto-Indo-European root bhrater. It is related to the Old Norse broðir, the Danish broder, the Old Frisian brother, the Dutch broeder, the German Bruder and the Gothic bróþar, as well as the Latin frater, and almost every other European language word for brother. The meaning of bully deteriorated during the 17th century. It quickly came to be used only for men, meaning ‘fine fellow,’ but soon devolved further, to ‘blusterer,’ and then to ‘harasser of the weak,’ perhaps due to its similarity to the word bull. Another sense of the word bully (now lost), appeared around the year 1700: a ‘protector of prostitutes,’ which we would now call a pimp. This was perhaps a combination of its original meaning of ‘lover’ with the newer sense. The verb comes from the noun, and dates back to the early 18th century. The expression “bully for you!” dates back to the late 17th century, and preserves the positive connotation (even if it is now mostly ironic).

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