Stupid Question ™
March 28, 2005
By John Ruch
Q: What’s the origin of the word “bulldozer”?
—anonymous, from the Internet
A: Nobody really knows, which makes “bulldozer” one of those fascinating words whose meaning shifts depending on what people imagine its origin to be.
“Bulldozer” today most commonly refers to a kind of earthmoving tractor with a blade attached to the front. It can also mean a kind of bully or steamrolling force—a metaphorical meaning that, one would guess, came from the earthmover idea. In fact, the exact reverse is true.
Bulldozer and bulldoze (the verb) are US slang that first turned up in the late 1800s to mean something intimidating or bullying, either literally or metaphorically. In at least some uses, large-caliber handguns were called “bulldozers.”
The word first popped up in print in newspapers, where it was frequently used along with a self-conscious explanation of its meaning. These etymologies generally claimed it came from “bull-dose,” a supposed slave plantation term for a whipping so severe it was a “dose” of punishment that would harm even a bull.
This is fairly believable, especially presuming the influence of such terms as “bullwhip.” However, there are reasons to doubt it, especially since no one has found an independent prior usage of “bull-dose.” It is just as likely to be pop etymology that helped cement the intimidating tone of the word.
It’s significant that at the time, “bull” could be used as a prefix in slang to denote something large. So a “bull-dose” could simply be a large dose of anything. But then, it’s also unclear how “dose” shifted into “doze”—if that’s indeed what happened. Early citations varying in their spellings, making it unclear which came first.
The overall sense of these early newspaper definitions is of someone trying to definite and phonetically spell a slang term from the street. So I don’t put a lot of stock in either the meaning or the spelling, though they do agree on the word “dose” being the basis. Still, a corruption of “bulldogs” or even some playful term like “bull does” (as in “how a bull behaves”) seem as likely to me.
It’s worth noting that while somewhat synonymous with “bully,” “bulldoze” has no etymological relation to that word. But they certainly came to converge in meaning nonetheless. In part, that seems to be because people mistakenly assume “bully” stems from the word “bull,” which it doesn’t.
In that vein, it’s interesting to note that at the same time “bulldozer” was slang for a gun, so was “bulldog.”
Anyhow, it was about 1930 that the earthmover industry picked up the pushy-sounding “bulldozer” as a term for its tractor.
The metaphorical meaning of a bully or overwhelming force remains, of course. But today, virtually everybody presumes it comes from the earthmover term. So there is almost always now an implication of a pushing, thrusting, flattening force that was not present in earlier meanings of “bulldoze.”