"The term bully spelled out: B-U-L-L-Y"

The term bully is invading newspaper headlines, marching across the evening news, and dominating bestseller lists. Emily Bazelon’s new book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Discovering the Power of Character and Empathy, is one of the latest examples of anti-bullying resources, and its examination of the origin of the word bully piqued my curiosity.

As it turns out, bullies haven’t always been thought of as intimidating menaces. For English speakers in the 16th century, bully was actually synonymous with lover.

How did the word’s meaning shape-shift so drastically throughout the ages?

The good news is that over the years we’ve become more precise in defining the key characteristics and various forms of bullying.  — Dr. Ron Slaby, Senior Scientist at EDC

To Be Feared Rather than Loved

If a feudal lord or town squire in the 1500s spoke of his “bully,” he was referring to his sweetheart, a definition that applied to both sexes and traces its etymological roots to the Dutch word boel, or “lover.” Several centuries later, the word’s meaning transformed from “fine fellow” into “blusterer”—someone full of hot air and empty threats. Before long, the word’s definition had morphed even further into a “harasser of the weak.”

In the mid-1800s, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a popular British novel, featured a violent “bully” named Flashman who snatched up lottery tickets and taunted schoolmates. Several decades later, a questionnaire asked American educators to provide examples of bullying at school. One teacher described a boy named Fletcher who would push smaller boys who would not obey him and then hold them down with his knee until they begged him to stop.

By the turn of the century, “bullies” were certainly no longer sweethearts or lovers; they were looming figures—like Flashman and Fletcher—who evoked fear among their peers.

From “Mobbing” to “Bullying”

Not until the 20th century did the word take on the more scholarly definitions we use today.

Dr. Peter Paul Heinemann, an accomplished physician and Holocaust survivor living in Sweden, developed a theory about bullying after witnessing the local community’s hostility toward his adopted son, David, who is black. Heinemann looked to the behavior of animals—specifically mobbing, a violent, instinctual behavior of birds assaulting a weaker member of their own species—and in turn applied the concept to a group’s aggression against a particular child.

A young Swedish academic named Dan Olweus considered Heinemann’s theory, but he disagreed with the idea that mobbing was a “crowd” behavior. Instead, as Bazelon describes in her book, Olweus contended that the opposite was true: Typically, a small group of two or three students would do the majority of the bullying that occurred in a class, and as many as 30 percent of children who were bullied had been victimized by the same person. When Olweus translated his 1978 book Aggression in the Schools from Swedish into English, he chose the English word bullying to describe these cruel schoolyard behaviors. Over time, Olweus refined the meaning of bullying to include three conditions: Bullying is (1) repeated (2) deliberate verbal or physical abuse by (3) someone with more power than his or her target.

Lost in Translation?

The concept of bullying, it turns out, is not an easy one to translate across cultures. While similar terms exist in many languages, academic studies have demonstrated that there is seldom an exact match. The Japanese word ijime, for example, has a greater emphasis on social manipulation. In contrast, the Italian words prepotenza and violenza suggest more physically aggressive actions.

English, of course, has its own definition of bullying; most social scientists refer to Olweus’s three-part definition. Yet as modern culture has focused more attention on this social phenomenon, people have begun using the word to describe a wide variety of experiences, and some scholars believe that the term is becoming too elastic. A recent New York Times op-ed pointed out that “bullying” should not be a catchall to describe any act of teasing or conflict. The word, the writer argued, is “being overused—expanding, accordionlike, to encompass both appalling violence or harassment and a few mean words.” As the piece concludes, “If every act of aggression counts as bullying, how can we stop it?”

Researchers have, in fact, been studying this issue.  A study from John Hopkins which examined the accuracy of bullying self-report measures showed that children’s victimization reports differ depending on whether surveying tools are definition-based or behavior-based. The power imbalance between bullies and their targets—essential to the concept of bullying—is particularly difficult for children to understand. Without it, children may overestimate the extent to which they are bullied physically and underestimate the extent to which they are bullied relationally. (Visit Eyes on Bullying to learn more about the different forms of bullying—physical, verbal, and indirect or relational.)

Calling a Thing By Its Proper Name

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. As most any child knows, the playground mantra can be a flimsy shield from verbal abuse. Epithets, slurs, and insults can injure as much as physical violence, and many bullies expertly wield the abusive power of language.

Yet words also possess the capacity to heal and to prevent further violence. The act of labeling an atrocity with a certain name can compel action—at the community, national, and/or international levels. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, recognized the potential of language as he coined the word genocide in 1944. Those who pioneered our modern definition of bullying—intentional and repeated verbal or physical abuse by someone with more power than his or her target—felt compelled to call a certain behavior by a proper name. Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and provincial racism in Sweden compelled Heinemann to define what he witnessed, and Olweus built on this research to develop the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program to help children like Heinemann’s adopted son, David. 

“The good news,” explains Dr. Ron Slaby, Senior Scientist at EDC and Technical Assistance Specialist for the National Center, “is that over the years we’ve become more precise in defining the key characteristics and various forms of bullying. This understanding clarifies the scope and guides the nature of our interventions to help stop and prevent bullying.” 

Your Turn

In your work with children and youth, do you see them correctly labeling bullying behavior? What prevention programs have you found particularly effective in helping children understand the meaning of bullying and how to respond to it? Please leave your comments below.*

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