Daily Archives: January 8, 2009

bulldoze

The sense of this word might have one thinking it’s straightforward in every way. The sound seems right enough: the mouth-pop of bull, a word often used like a verbal fist, and the broken-nose machine buzz of doze. You can even see the progress of the equipment: the ascenders are being levelled from the left side… or perhaps bull is the machine, with the ll the front shovel, pushing against doze, which itself has an aspect of machinery moving leftward, with the o and e as wheels. But a pause to look at the sense will give just a beginning of a hint that it might be more complicated. If we think of a large earth-moving machine, we can see how the intransigent, inexorable, ineluctable vector of a forward-moving bull might equate. But what does doze have to do with it? The bull is lumbering, not slumbering! Well, you’re in for a dose of surprise. A real horse pill, in fact. When we speak of someone pushing through opposition or intimidating it as bulldozing, it’s not originally a metaphor based on the earth-moving equipment; it’s the other way around: the machinery is named after the human action. People were bulldozing opposition a half-century before they were ever bulldozing land. OK, but where does that come from? From bull-dose – a dose strong enough for a bull. Of what? Originally of whipping: an incredibly brutal lashing, enough to kill a man, or nearly so. Threat of such a whipping was used in 1876 to coerce southern US blacks into voting Democrat, or at least not voting Republican (yes, that’s right – remember, just over a decade earlier Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president). From that came the sense of coercion (and, along the way, a change of the s to a z); the first bulldozers were people, and sometimes guns, too. From pushing people around it expanded to pushing things around. And now a dose fit for a bull is delivered to the earth, typically by a Caterpillar.