Bull, of buffalo and bluffing

Words about words


Photo: Welcome Collection / public domain
This lithograph by J. Ward from about 1837 depicts a short-horned bull.

Asker, Norway

As applied to the male of a bovine species of animal, as domestic cattle and buffalo, the word bull most likely comes from the Old Norse bole or boli, apparently the roots of the Old English bulla. The sense of bull as a ludicrous jest is of unknown origin, but it may have come from the Old French boul or bole meaning bluff, fraud, or deceit. In modern Icelandic, bull means “nonsense,” which suggests there may be an unknown connection to Old Norse.

The word bull was first published in Ormulum, the 12th century work of biblical exegesis written by a monk named Ormin of the order of St. Augustine. Ormin evidently lived in the Danish territory of England, in the former kingdom of Mercia, part of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy of seven kingdoms before they were united into the Kingdom of England in the 10th century. Line 990 of Ormulum reads “lac wass bule, & lamb, & buckess twa togeddre.”

The second significant mention of bull was in Cursor Mundi (Latin for “Runner of the World”), a Middle English poem of almost 30,000 lines, written anonymously about 1300 A.D. somewhere in Northern England. The poem is an overview of the then-known history of the world, as described in the Bible and other sources. Line 10,395 of Cursor Mundi reads “Þe bulles tuelue he offrid sua.” In 1385, “The Legend of Good Women” poem in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales included the line: “Two bolys makid all of bras.” Thereafter, bull increasingly appeared in phrases and proverbs. “A bull in a China shop” symbolizes someone or something that produces reckless destruction. “To take the bull by the horns” connotes courage in meeting a difficulty.

The use of bull as a ludicrous jest came late into the language. In 1630, English poet John Taylor (1578-1653), dubbed himself “The Water Poet,” because for much of his working life he earned a living by ferrying people across and along the waters of the city center. He published a book in London with the long title: Wit and mirth chargeably collected out of tauernes, ordinaries, innes, bowling greenes, and allyes, alehouses, tobacco shops, highwaies, and water-passages : made and fashioned into clinches, bulls, quirkes, yerkes, quips, and jerkes : apothegmatically bundled up and garbled at the request of old Iohn Garrets ghost.

In slang and trivialities, bull became popular, particularly in the United States. In 1920, American writer Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) remarked in a letter that “with no more delightful ‘bull sessions,’ I have turned to work.”


This article originally appeared in the June 24, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.