12 Arm-Twisting Words for Bullies

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The long tradition of bullying means a long list of words for bullies, many of which are lost in the mists of time. Though some words show traces of the wide-ranging history of bully—which originally was a term of endearment—most of the following terms would make useful arrows in the quiver of bully-shamers.


Mostly, this term has involved haggles and negotiations that are peaceful, but it was also used in the 1500s as a term for someone who strikes a hard bargain through violence. This euphemism deserves further use: It fits perfectly with the immortal Godfather-ism all bullies follow: “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”


The Oxford English Dictionary defines this threatening dialect term as “A swashbuckler, bully, braggadocio; a terrible or great person; a man of importance.” It can be a noun or adjective. A 1633 example in James Shirley’s play The Young Admiral uses the term with gusto: “You are afraid Of him, belike: 'tis such a kill-cow gentleman!”


The first uses of this word were more cerebral, if not laudable: barrators were cheaters and tricksters. One sub-meaning referred to a corrupt judge. Among other uses was a sense as a bully, including a hired musclehead. This meaning is found since the 1440s, and a 1577 use from Holinshed’s Chronicles tells a timeless tale of lugs for hire: “Such barretors as used to take monie to beat any man, and againe would not sticke to take monie of him whom they had so beaten, to beat him that first hired them to beat the other.” Man, if you can’t trust a bully, who can you trust?


This nonce word was used by Ben Jonson in 1601. The OED’s etymological note doesn’t inspire much confidence: “According to [Robert] Nares ‘Conjectured to be a term of contempt, invented upon the overthrow of the Bastard of Burgundy in a contest with Anthony Woodville, in Smithfield 1467’; but this, in absence of evidence, is very improbable.”


This type of bully is more of a bouncer: a chucker-out does just that, tossing unruly or unwelcome folks out of an establishment that is likely liquor-soaked. This literal term is reminiscent of two other bully synonyms: arm-twister and shoulder-hitter. In the 1800s, the latter referred someone who throws their fists around (from the shoulder, if they had good form). That could be a bully or a more respectable type: a pugilist.


In the 1500s, this was a synonym for a cutthroat: someone, probably a criminal, who was a little too eager to pull out a weapon, especially a knife. A 1581 OED example perfectly describes this sort of roughneck: “…cutters, and hackers, who will take the wall of men, and picke quarrells.”


A frapler tends to fraple: In other words, as the OED puts it, “To dispute, wrangle, bluster.” In 1601, Ben Jonson, who seems to have had a fondness for the lexicon of bullies, used the term in The Fountain of Self-love: “Thou art rude, impudent, course, impolisht; a Frapler, and base.”


This word for troublemakers turned up in the 1800s and doesn’t require much explanation. These days, it mainly turns up in New Zealand and Australia, and it has a related sense that refers to tricking or pranking someone. That mischievous sense turns up in a 1998 use from the Sydney Morning Herald: “Holdens are relying on the projection of an image of being Australian in spite of its ownership by ‘the General Motors empire’. You wouldn't be trying to pull a roughie, would you?”


This folksy word, which is likely a shortened version of belly swagger, has been spotted in print since the 1500s and applied to many swaggering, disreputable types. Other than a bully, a belswagger can be a pimp. Guess it’s true what they say: Belswaggin’ ain’t easy.


With apologies to the Disney rabbit, a thumper can be the type no rabbit would want to encounter in a dark alley—or a well-lit gazebo for that matter. The OED definition is wonderfully dry: “One who or that which thumps.” Back in the 1500s, a thumper was often a dastardly rogue, which puts it close to the bully lexicon. Then or now, thumpers are the worst.