The Funny Dictionary: Illustrated, to be published by the National Library of Australia in 2017/8, is a book of blunders in language perpetrated by school children. One of my favourite kinds of blunders is the “bull” — sometimes called the Irish bull.

What is a bull?

Bulls are blunders; but not all blunders are bulls. Bulls are more easily explained by example than by definition. Pedro Guardia gives three examples of bulls in Irish Bulls or Bulls (1989) at page 119:

Two men, Patrick and Tim, were walking in a quarry. Patrick fell into a deep pit. Tim called out: "Patrick, are you killed entirely? If you're dead, speak." Pat reassured Tim from the bottom of the pit, saying: "No, Tim, I'm not dead, but I am speechless."

From a recipe book —

"Potatoes should always be boiled in cold water."

An usher to a theatre-goer —

"Indeed, miss, I should be glad to give you a seat, but the empty ones are all full."

And an example now of a bull from The Funny Dictionary: Illustrated

"The feudal system is a legal system that said if one man killed another, the man in the family of the murdered could kill the murderers, and so on".

No-one knows where the word "bull", in this sense, comes from; and no-one has found an adequate way of defining the word.

Uncertain Origins

The word bull appears in a series of jest books of the 1600s. An example is Robert Chamberlain's, The Booke of Bulls, Baited with Two Centuries of Bold Jests, and Nimble Lies, or A Combat Between Sence and Non-Sence, Being at Strife who Shall Infuse Most Myrth into the Gentle-Reader (1636). Some time in the second half of the 1600s, bulls became associated particularly with the Irish; the word now often appears as "Irish bull" (Jerrold, 5). Although bulls are often associated with the Irish, so-called Irish bulls trace to ancient Greece and earlier.

The derivation of the word bull is uncertain. The word might have been borrowed from the Icelandic word "bull", which means "nonsense" (Jerrold, 5). The word has nothing to do with Papal Bulls; nor is it true that bulls are named after Obadiah Bull, an Irish lawyer of London who lived in the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509) (Jerrold, 5; cf Percy, 11).

We are left with Robert Chamberlain's explanation of the derivation of the word bull: in his 1637 New Booke of Mistakes, or Bulls with Tales, and Bulls Without Tales But No Lyes By Any Meanes, Chamberlain says (at page 3): "There are ... mistakes in speech, which pass under the name of Bulls; but if any man shall demand of me; why they be so called, I must only put them off with this … reason, they are so, because they be so."

Attempts at Definition

In their famous "Essay on Irish Bulls" (3 ed, 1808), the Edgeworths say "no accurate definition of a bull has yet been given. The essence of an Irish bull must be of the most ethereal nature, for notwithstanding the most indefatigable research it has hitherto escaped from analysis" (page 6). Commentators have continued to struggle with the problem of defining a bull. What, for example, is the difference between a bull and a witticism or a mixed metaphor?

Here are some of the most notable attempts at clarifying the meaning of "bull":

  • A bull "consists in a mental juxtaposition of incongruous ideas with the sensation, but without the sense, of connection" (Bombaugh, quoting Coleridge, 8).
  • The element of bulls is "a curious modification of ideas by each other" (Jerrold, quoting Coleridge, 6).
  • A bull is figurative language "so daringly abusive of language that it borrows and employs terms contrary to the idea which is mean to be expressed" (Bombaugh, 8).
  • A bull is "a self-contradictory proposition; in modern use, an expression containing a manifest contradiction in terms or involving a ludicrous inconsistency unperceived by the speaker" (Oxford English Dictionary).
  • A bull is "a one-sided statement with an aspect of cleverness, but in which an absurdity unperceived by the speaker renders the sentence ridiculous" (Jerrold, 6).
  • A bull is "a statement which contradicts itself amusingly, like the Irishman's rope which had only one end, because the other end had been cut away"; a bull is not "a dull absurdity which no one can comprehend; but is always comprehensible, even when it is most confused" (Brown (1906) v).

The best analysis of "bull" that I have found comes from Sydney Smith in an article from the Edinburgh Review (volume 2, July 1803), as reinterpreted by John Smith in Irish Diamonds; or A Theory of Irish Wit and Blunders (1847). Sydney Smith summed up a bull as "an apparent congruity and real incongruity of ideas suddenly discovered" (John Smith, quoting Sydney Smith, 30). A bull is a kind of reverse wit since "wit discovers real relations that are not apparent" but "bulls admit apparent relations that are not real" (John Smith, quoting Sydney Smith, 31). John Smith rephrases Sydney Smith's definition thus: "In a bull we have first an apparent agreement or consistency of parts, followed, however, by the sudden discovery of their ludicrous disagreement" (John Smith, 30). The stronger the apparent connection, and the more complete the real disconnection of ideas, the greater the surprise and the funnier the bull (John Smith, quoting Sydney Smith, 33).

My own definition of bull would be: A bull is an unintentionally humorous statement or action involving a mismatch of ideas, unperceived by the bull's maker; despite the mismatch, the bull feels like it makes some sense and, often, reveals something true — all by accident.

More Examples

Perhaps the funniest examples of bulls appear in the following letter, said to be written during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, by an Irish Member of Parliament to his friend in London. I have reproduced this version of the letter from John Smith's Irish Diamonds (pages 130-132):

My DEAR SIR,

Having now a little peace and quietness, I sit down to inform you of the dreadful bustle and confusion we are in from these blood-thirsty rebels, most of whom are (thank God!) killed and dispersed.

We are in a pretty mess, can get nothing to eat, nor wine to drink, except whisky; and when we sit down to dinner we are obliged to keep both hands armed. Whilst I write this, I hold a sword in each hand and a pistol in the other.

I concluded from the beginning that this would be the end of it, and I see I was right, for it is not half over yet. At present there are such goings on that every thing is at a stand still.

I should have answered your letter a fortnight ago, but I did not receive it till this morning. Indeed, scarcely a mail arrives safe without being robbed. No longer ago than yesterday the coach with the mails from Dublin was robbed near this town; the bags had been judiciously left behind for fear of accident, and by good luck there was nobody in it but two outside passengers, who had nothing for the thieves to take.

Last Thursday notice was given that a gang of rebels was advancing here under the French standard, but they had no colours, nor any drums except bagpipes. Immediately every man in the place, including women and children, ran out to meet them. We soon found our force much too little; we were far too near to think of retreating. Death was in every face, but to it we went, and, by the time half our little party were killed, we began to be all alive again.

Fortunately the rebels had no guns, except pistols, cutlasses, and pikes, and as we had plenty of muskets and ammunition, we put them all to the sword. Not a soul of them escaped, except some that were drowned in an adjacent bog; and, in a very short time, nothing was to be heard but silence.

Their uniforms were all different colours, but mostly green. After the action we went to rummage a sort of camp, which they had left behind them. All we found was a few pikes, without heads, a parcel of empty bottles full of water, and a bundle of French commissions filled up with Irish names. Troops are now stationed all round the country, which exactly squares with my ideas.

I have only time to add that I am in great haste.

Yours truly,

 

P.S. If you do not receive this, of course it must have miscarried, therefore I beg you will write to let me know.

Why do Bulls make us laugh?

Several theories exist about why humans laugh. For example, the superiority theory says that laughter always arises from a sense of real or imaginary superiority (Edgeworth, 73). It might be thought that bulls make us laugh because of a base sense of superiority we feel to the blunderer. At this base level, we laugh at the perpetrator of the bull.

But perhaps the main sense of superiority involved in bulls is not our superiority to the blunderer, but rather the blunderer's superiority to language. A bull is: "always connected with thought, and originates in the imaginative power of its people. It is not at all a dull absurdity which no one can comprehend; it is always comprehensible, even when it is most confused. It proceeds, not from the want, but the superabundance of ideas, which crowd one another so fast ... that they get jammed together, so to speak, in the door-way of ... speech (Brown (1894) 1). This mental quickness "urges the bull-maker to reach their goal by the shortest route using words which though taken literally are contradictory and ambiguous, at once convey the exact meaning intended that could not otherwise be expressed without considerable circumlocution." (Percy, 9-10).

The blunderer who makes a bull has managed to extract, by accident, some sense from non-sense; they have found congruity from incongruity; they have conveyed a truth through a falsehood. We laugh not at the blunderer but with the blunderer. The funniest bull is the one that makes the most sense, achieves the most congruity, and reveals the most truth, out of the biggest load of nonsense. The English language makes no fool of the bull-maker; the bull-maker makes a fool of the English language.

Troy Simpson

References

Anonymous, Bogg-Witticisms, or Dear Joy's Common Places (1682)

Charles Bombaugh, The Book of Blunders (1871)

Marshall Brown, Bulls and Blunders (1894)

Marshall Brown, Humor of Bulls and Blunders (1906)

Robert Chamberlain, The Booke of Bulls, Baited with Two Centuries of Bold Jests, and Nimble Lies, or A Combat Between Sence and Non-Sence, Being at Strife who Shall Infuse Most Myrth into the Gentle-Reader (1636)

Robert Chamberlain, A New Booke of Mistakes, or Bulls with Tales, and Bulls Without Tales But No Lyes By Any Meanes (1637)

WA Clouston, The Book of Noodles (1888)

Richard Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, Essay on Irish Bulls (3 ed, 1808)

Pedro Guardia, "Irish Bulls or Bulls" (1989) 1 Barcelona English Language and Literature Studies 117

Walter Jerrold, Bulls, Blunders and Howlers (1928)

JC Percy, Bulls: Ancient and Modern (1912)

John Smith, Irish Diamonds: Theory of Irish Wit and Blunders (1847)