by Warren Blumenfeld
New words join while some words perish from all languages. Some words remain though altering or transforming their meanings to varying degrees between eras. A number of words even expand to include additional parts of speech, for example, former nouns enter the realm of verbs, like the noun “text” to the verb “to text,” the noun “lunch” to the verb “to lunch,” and many others. I’ve even added to this trend by connecting the noun “dissertation” to the action verb “to dissertate,” meaning the process of researching and writing a dissertation. I don’t think this has a chance, though, of going viral anytime soon (noun “virus” to the verb “to go viral”).
This year, my college students introduced me to the terms “meme” (a cultural image, video, or phrase) and “selfie” (a picture one takes of oneself with a smartphone or webcam and distributes on the web), so now I feel “in” with the lingo (though I’m probably self-deluded).
I am struck by the enormous variety of terms that we as a society have altered in their meanings over the years. Recently a student talked in class about the “sick” son of a famous social activist. When the class noticed the look of deep concern on my face, they laughed, and one student informed me that “sick” now also means “awesome.” Students also taught me that “crib” can now mean “home,” and “scoop” can mean to “pick one up in one’s car.” I have learned also, that the term “luxury,” back in the 14th century, in French “luxurie,” meant “sexual intercourse,” and by the 15th century expanded to “lasciviousness” and “sinfulness.” We clearly do not employ the term with this meaning today.
I was raised at a time when my parents and grandparents referred to the “Frigidaire” or to the “ice box” for what our society commonly refers to as a “refrigerator.” Sometimes I unconsciously let slip the term “ice box,” and my friends remark that “I am dating myself.”
I see similar breakdowns and misunderstandings between generations over the expression “bully pulpit.” President Theodore Roosevelt coined the expression, and reportedly first used it in 1909: “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!” (February 27, 1909, issue of The Outlook magazine).
‘Bully’ had a different meaning back then
In this quote, Roosevelt referred to how the presidency offered the resident of the White House a wonderful opportunity, an awesome platform, to promote an agenda or series of programs. Within Roosevelt’s United States, “bully” often suggested or denoted “magnificent,” “superb,” “amazing,” “fantastic,” “great,” or “marvelous” as in the expression “bully for you” (“good for you,” “fantastic work”).
As was the case in Roosevelt’s time as it is today, a “pulpit” is a physical structure, a platform or foundation, from which one presents a sermon within a religious house of worship.
As we know today, however, “bully” no longer retains its positive meanings. Rather, according to the prestigious Journal of the American Medication Association (2001), “Bullying is a specific type of aggression in which (1) the behavior is intended to harm or disturb, (2) the behavior occurs repeatedly over time, and (3) there is an imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one….”
Studies reveal inconsistent results over the actual rates of bullying behaviors evidenced in our workplaces and in our schools, but most reputable research acknowledge the prevalence of these destructive behaviors not only on the targets of bullying, but also on the perpetrators.
We need, therefore, to ask some critical questions. For example, given contemporary meanings and understandings of the term “bully,” are we in fact stating directly, or at least implying, that by advancing the metaphoric expression of the “bully pulpit,” we are promoting the notion that “might makes right,” that people with political power can use that power to figuratively at least beat their opponents into submission? And if so, what kinds of messages are we sending our youth? Moreover, in a nation purportedly separating religion from government, how appropriate is it for politicians to use sectarian (“pulpit”) metaphors.
I contend that we must not view bullying and harassment as simply youth problems and behaviors, but rather, investigate the contexts in which bullying “trickles down” from the larger society and reproduces itself within the schools. Young people, through the process of social learning, often acquire bullying and harassing attitudes and behaviors, many times from “adults,” and also often learn from them the socially sanctioned targets for their aggressive behaviors.
I refer to this as the “social ecology” of bullying and harassment. Ecology can be defined as the relationships between organisms and their environments. We must, therefore, investigate the larger sociological and psychological environments for us to determine, understand, and if necessary, institute procedures to change our institutional environments.
“Bully pulpit” as Teddy Roosevelt understood the expression, I contend, has morphed, evolved, and transformed into what we might call today the President’s “leadership platform,” and how the presidency offers the resident of the White House a wonderful opportunity, an awesome platform, to promote an agenda or series of programs.
As it is often said that “elections have consequences,” in fact so do words. Therefore, let us assign and bury the “bully pulpit” to the archives of linguistics.
JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, April 25, 2001. Vol. 285, No. 16).
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).