Bull

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OED lists no fewer than 10 separate nouns and four verbs with this spelling, apart from its use as a prefix, mostly in plant names. Many are obsolete, or rare. The following notes may be of use to students at some time.

  • The commonest meaning is that of a male animal of any of the varieties of cattle - domestic cows, buffalo, bison, etc. This is occasionally applied to males of other mammalian species, such as elephants, elk and even whales. It is prefixed to other derived terms, as in bulldog (originally used for the primitive 'sport' of bull-baiting) and its cross, a bull-terrier, of which one variety is commonly abbreviated as pit bull (i.e. one bred for the 'sport' of dog-fighting contests in a pit); bull-fighting, another 'sport' popular in Spain and S.W. France. The bull is famous for its powerful muscles around the neck which support a massive head, and are useful for fighting. Hence such descriptions as bull-necked, to describe [humans with] powerful well-muscled necks, and bullheaded to mean [objects or animals] with large heads; when it is applied to people, it refers to the reputation of the bull's thinking powers, and means 'obstinate', 'stubborn', and sometimes 'rashly impetuous', or 'prepared to charge in without thinking'. The verb 'to bull' can be used to mean 'to force an entry to or passage through something by muscle', or similar figurative meanings. 'To go bull-headed at [something]' is 'to rush in and try to solve [a problem] by brute force, without subtlety'. Bullbars are fitted to vehicles to prevent damage by straying animals. In American slang, a bull is a policeman - WordNet calls it "uncomplimentary". A bullock is a castrated bull - one raised exclusively for its meat, rather than its potential as a breeder.
    • The character John Bull was invented by John Arbuthnot (1667–1735), satirist (and medical doctor) as a personification of the English character. The History of John Bull appeared in 1712. John Bull has been used ever since by cartoonists (he is shown as jolly, red -faced, stout, healthy; dressed in light breeches and well-polished boots, with a Union Flag waistcoat and a (shallow) top hat), journalists and others to represent what is imagined to be the typical, bluff, no-nonsense Englishman.
      • G.B. Shaw wrote a play about Ireland called John Bull's Other Island (1904).
      • John Bull (?1562-1628) was also a real composer. He seems to have been the first to write a tune which became that of the anthem "God Save the Queen [or King]". According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, on-line at Oxford reference on-line, "One of his comp[osition]s is called God Save the King but bears no resemblance to the nat[ional] anthem; however, another untitled piece by Bull is a possible source of this melody."
    • The Bull is the English name of the constellation known to astronomers and astrolgers by its Latin name Taurus. Some other figurative meanings may be of interest:
      • A bull in a china shop is a proverbial phrase for a very destructive individual;
      • on the Stock-Exchange, a bull is "One who endeavours by speculative purchases, or otherwise, to raise the price of stocks" (OED s.v. bull n.1, II. 8.) See also bear. Hence the adjective bullish, meaning 'optimistic' - original only about stock prices, but now more generally, and verb 'to bull', meaning 'to but stocks and shares as a speculation on a rise in price'.
      • 'To bellow like a bull' used to be the proverbial way of describing a 'very loud' utterance - especially if it were non-verbal, like a cry of pain.
      • A cock-and-bull story is an incredible, wildly imagined story, often presented as an excuse. Before the nineteenth century, it was more commonly just "a long rambling, idle story; tedious, disconnected, or misleading talk" (OED). The origin appears to be a forgotten folk tale. (In Scotland, an equivalent French expression coq-à-l’ àne’, 'cock to the ass', was adopted as cockalane. This is now obsolete.)
    • Various animals are named with a 'bull-' element. Bullfrogs are various species of frog with loud voices which are said to resemble the bellow of a bull; bullfinches are birds with thick necks. Bullheads are small fresh-water fish (also called 'Miller's thumb') with massive heads.
    • More mechanically, a bulldozers are earth-moving machines that push like a bull'; bullheaded rails are the rails made for railways that have a thick top section and a thick bottom section adapted to sit in the 'chairs' on the sleepers (see [[1]] at the section 'bullhead rail' for more. A bullroarer is an instrument that is used for communication and/or music by many aboriginal peoples, consisting of a shaped piece of wood, or similar material) up to two feet (60 cm) long attached t a long cord that is swung at speed round the user's head. A bullwhip is a long whip used for driving cattle
      • Bull's-eye glass is called that because of the centgral swirl created when widow glass was blown by manual workers; later, some lenses were called the same, and the oil lamps carried by policemen in the 19th century were known as bull's eye lanterns after the lenses of that shape fitted in their sides:
      • There is also a spherical sweet called a bull's eye that schoolchildren used to love to suck.
      • A bull's eye is also the name given to the central circle in a target for shooting, and hence ' to hit the bull' [sc. bull's eye] is to score a hit, or maximum points. For example, you may hear older speakers asking questions, perhaps of grandchildren, and exclaiming "Bull's eye!" to signal a correct answer.
  • Students of History and Theology may come across the noun 'a bull' in connection with documents, particularly of the Church. It meant 'a seal', in the second sense listed at seal: a solid object inextricably fixed to the document as a mark of authenticity. Almost always, it refers to a solemn and authoritative document issued by the Pope, marked with a seal (Latin bulla, plural bullae) cast in lead. Where originally the bull referred to the authenticating (and imposing and expensive) seal, the term 'A Papal Bull' nowadays means an official order, edict or mandate issued by the Pope in Rome.
  • Two slang verbs unrelated to the name of the male cow exist, both having related nouns.
    • 'To bull', meaning 'to trick', 'to make a fool of', is rarely used nowadays as a verb. The noun, commonly in the phrase 'an Irish bull]', is better known - but not much used.
    • Bull, as in the phrase "that's a load of bull" (~ 'that is nonsense', 'I don't believe it') is a euphemistic clipping of bullshit. This term may be more common in American English; 'crap' is the equivalent that may be more traditional in British English. Neither is appropriate in academic writing, and both are regarded as taboo by some people.
A bullace is a variety of plum (Prunus insititia), mostly wild but 'semi-cultivated (OED). The word has no connection with bull, other than the coincidence of its first four letters.

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