Number one for English language teachers

Word of the week: Burly

Type: Reference material

Ever encountered some burly bouncers on a rowdy night out or found yourself immersed in the hurly-burly of a busy market? Tim Bowen traces the origin of this stately Word of the week, all the way back to a lady's chamber...

According to a headline in The Times newspaper, 'it took four burly men to restrain air-rage drunk', presenting an image of large, strong men overcoming a violent passenger. Indeed, the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners gives the following definition of burly: 'a burly man is fat and strong'. One might imagine that burly is another adjective reserved exclusively for describing men. Curiously, however, an Internet search reveals that the expression burly women is four times more common than burly men.

The original meaning of burly is far removed from the idea of ‘fat and strong’. It is believed to derive from the adjectival form of the word bower, meaning ‘a lady’s chamber’, so it meant ‘relating to a lady’s room’ and, later, ‘stately’, ‘noble’ or ‘excellent’. The word then gradually took on the meaning of ‘stout’ or ‘sturdy’ as in ‘a burly bed’. Burly can also be found in the unrelated expression hurly-burly, defined as ‘a lot of noisy activity, usually involving large numbers of people’, which comes from an old French word meaning ‘to howl’. An example of this expression can be found in an edition of the same newspaper: '… the dusty hurly-burly and crowded bazaars of Rawalpindi…'


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