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The Independent Online

"I LOVE the lovely bully" says the soldier Pistol when encouraged to say what he thinks of his sovereign. Today this sounds like a contradiction in terms, but bullies are not what they were. According to the National Association of Schoolmasters & Union of Women Teachers, which has just published a survey on the subject, some heads have even taken to bullying their staffs, causing loss of confidence and mental stress. We've forgotten Henry V and are now with David Copperfield's sadistic headmaster, Mr Creakle.

For Pistol a bully was a mate, chum, or boon companion; the etymology is not too clear, but it seems to have been a low-class, jokey sort of a word. Henry would not have returned Pistol's compliment; being a reformed character by that time, he would have cut the word from his vocabulary. The publican in The Merry Wives of Windsor, a rather tiresome fellow, was always calling people bully. The harmless weaver in A Midsummer Night's Dream was "bully Bottom" to his fellow artisans.

It wasn't till about 100 years later that bullies turned nasty. By that time people were using the word to mean a swashbuckler, 50 years on, a ruffian. Those who regarded themselves as educated, noting that the working classes whom they despised used the word of each other, must have thought of all such people as bullies, much as Private Eye calls all actors Luvvies.

I'm not sure when school bullies arrived. Flashman was a bully in 1856 but I don't remember Tom Brown, or anyone else in the book, calling him one. They were well established by Kipling's time, though, with Stalky asking Sefton and Campbell "Why did you bully Clewer?" ("Because I am a bully", says the repentant Campbell.) The old meaning survives in the expression "bully for you", but this is now for sarcastic purposes.