Simanaitis Says

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I AM a lover of the English language, with a deep appreciation of Theodore Roosevelt. It was he who characterized the presidency as a “bully pulpit.”

Theodore Roosevelt, 1858–1919, American statesman, author, explorer, soldier, naturalist, and reformer. Twenty-sixth President of the United States, 1901–1909.

But, I note emphatically, “bully pulpit” has utterly nothing to do with “bully” in Merriam-Webster’s first sense of a “blustering, browbeating person; especially one who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable.”

It saddens me that this is in any way related to the sense in which Teddy Roosevelt used the word, akin to Merriam-Webster’s “third and archaic a: sweetheart and b: a fine chap.”

In addition to Merriam-Webster, my other source on this is The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (in slipcase with reading glass) (v. 1-20), 1971. Bully and its related entries occupy three finely-packed columns of the OED, and it is well into these definitions before the appearance of “now esp. a tyrannical coward who makes himself a terror to the weak.”

The earliest usage cited is bully as a term of endearment or familiarity: “Though she be sumwhat olde It is myne owne swete bullye,” 1538. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1590, Quince, one of the charming Mechanicals, says to another, “What saist thou, bully Bottome?”

The Mechanicals of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream were common folk in the play for comedic purpose.

According to the OED, bully had split into several meanings by the 1800s, including “the Gallant or protector of a prostitute.” Another was a pickled, canned meat, as in “bully beef.” A third was “a pattern of a miner’s hammer, varying from broad bully to narrow bully.

Among others is Teddy Roosevelt’s, in the sense of “capital, first-rate, or ‘crack.’ ” The OED offers examples: “The cook will give you a bully dinner.” And “as an exclamation: ‘Bully for you!’ = bravo! well done!”

Teddy Roosevelt communicating with the electorate on a whistle-stop tour, Biddeford, Maine, 1902.

Teddy Roosevelt absolutely reveled in the presidency, thus celebrating the position to be “a bully pulpit.”

True, Teddy also had a confident sense of self: Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said of her father, “He wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening.”

And he wasn’t a wretched bully. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. Michael Rubin
    July 3, 2017

    Bully for you, Dennis!. Well written. Your love of language is appreciated.

    • simanaitissays
      July 3, 2017

      And yours as well (not that I am the only example of this).

  2. VTK
    July 5, 2017

    The late great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould published a collection of his essays called Bully for Brontosaurus. The usage in the exclamatory sense. I miss his essays.

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