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Bully pulpit

Q From S O Waife, Florida: We’ve been hearing a lot about the President using his bully pulpit. We know what it means, but where did the term come from?

A It’s certainly in the news at the moment.

I wonder, though, if the meaning that I think you have in mind is really known to everybody? When I first came across it, years ago, I assumed that bully was in the usual current sense of a person who intimidates others through force and that bully pulpit meant that some person in authority was abusing his powers. This is by no means an uncommon assumption:

Consider the case of the government using the bully pulpit of eminent domain to effectively seize a business it didn’t like.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 29 May 2009.

It was a while before I realised that bully here had a different sense, one now hardly known, of something first-rate or excellent. Oddly, the two senses are from the same source, since bully was originally a term of endearment, from Dutch boel, lover, and later became a compliment for a male companion, meaning admirable. Our current sense grew out of this as the word went down in public estimation. At one time you might have heard people say bully for you! as a way to express admiration for another’s action.

Enough on the background. This is the origin:

Half a dozen of us were with the President [Theodore Roosevelt] in his library. He was sitting at his desk reading to us his forthcoming Message. He had just finished reading a paragraph of a distinctly ethical character when he suddenly stopped, swung round in his swivel chair and said “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”

Lyman Abbott, in The Outlook, 27 Feb. 1909. Dr Abbott, a notable Protestant theologian and author, was editor-in-chief of the magazine. The anecdote was thought worth repeating in the New York Times on 6 March. Roosevelt was fond of bully as an adjective; when he returned to the US following his successful campaign in Cuba in 1898, he said “I’ve had a bully time and a bully fight!”

To quote William Safire’s Political Dictionary, a bully pulpit is “active use of the president’s prestige and high visibility to inspire or moralize.” That’s certainly the most common meaning, directly arising from Roosevelt’s usage, but it’s now wider in application than just the presidency and is used of other persons and also of organisations.

The term became known, though hardly fashionable, in the years that followed its first appearance, most frequently in commentaries on Roosevelt’s presidency, but then largely fell out of use. It’s notable that one newspaper archive I consulted has no examples between 1909 and 1958. It returned to significant use in the language in the 1960s, becoming widely known from about 1985. An early stimulus was its use in books about the Kennedy administration, such as Arthur Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days and Theodore C Sorensen’s Kennedy.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Aug. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 22 August 2009.