Tuesday, 4 September 2007


Q. Watching earth-moving near my home the other day, I wondered why the machine doing the job was called a "bulldozer". I can see how it might be like a bull butting, but is that really where it comes from? [Jim Whittaker]

A. Sort of. But the story's surprisingly complicated.

The word is definitely American. The earliest sense had nothing to do with machinery, but referred to punishment, in particular a severe whipping applied with a bullwhip. Detailed explanations appear in several US newspapers in the latter months of 1876. All say that it came into being as a result of a determined attempt by Republicans in the Southern states, particularly Louisiana, to stop blacks from joining the Democrats by "persuading" them to take the oath of the brethren of the Union Rights Stop. This is the way it was explained in the Gettysburg Compiler of 11 January 1877:

In very obstinate cases the brethren were in the habit of administering a "bull's dose" of several hundred lashes on the bare back. When dealing with those who were hard to convert, active members would call out "give me the whip and let me give him a bull-dose." From this it became easy to say "that fellow ought to be bull-dosed, or bull-dozed," and soon bull-doze, bull-dozing and bull-dozers came to be slang words.

By the early 1880s, to "bulldoze" was to intimidate or coerce by violence, specifically the threat of a flogging. A "bulldozer" could be a bully, an intimidator, or a member of a vigilante mob. It could also refer to a type of gun, presumably seen as a usefully intimidating device.

The next step occurs around the end of the century. We start to get references to "bulldozer" being the name for various items of equipment. The earliest is for a machine in a blacksmith's shop for bending big pieces of metal. There's no way to tell whether this sense appeared independently or had been borrowed from the earlier ones, but the ideas are sufficiently similar to presume a link of some sort.

In 1910, a Pennsylvania news report said a boat had been bought to scrape out and clean the channels of a canal. This came with a bulldozer - from the description a device for mounting on the bows of the boat - to break up heavy ice in winter. Crude early mule-powered earth-movers were also said to be fitted with such a bulldozer (the problem, it was said, was getting the mules to go backwards ready for the next stroke).

As you can imagine, in time "bulldozer" for the pusher device at the front of a machine became confused with that of the machine that did the pushing. But the first cases of "bulldozer" for a tractor fitted with one appear only at the end of the 1920s and are usually linked with the then new Caterpillar tractors. After that, of course, a retronym had to be invented to describe the item once called by that name, and "bulldozer blade" came into existence.

World Wide Words is copyright (c) Michael Quinion 2006. All rights reserved. The Words Web site is at http://www.worldwidewords.org .

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