Burly

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Kyle Massey, "‘Burly,’ a Word With a Racially Charged History", NYT 8/25/2014:

As protests raged after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., two articles in The Times on Aug. 16 referred to both Mr. Brown and the state police captain overseeing security in the case as “burly.” Both Mr. Brown and the captain, Ronald S. Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, are black.

Readers wrote to say that “burly” has long been a racial stereotype; the word hasn’t appeared in this context in The Times since the readers’ notes.

So here is the tale of a troublesome word with a fraught history and how The Times came to reconsider its use.

Like several others who have mentioned this to me, I found this surprising, so I thought I'd look for evidence one way or the other.

The OED gives the first (now obsolete) gloss for burly as "Stately, dignified, of noble or imposing presence or appearance", with the most recent example being "A burly band Of warlike wights", from Floddan Field, 1664.

The second obsolete sense of burly is glossed as "poet. Of things: Goodly, excellent, noble. Obs. (As an epithet of spear, brand, the meaning may have been ‘stout’: cf. boisterous adj.)" This time the most recent citation extends into the second half of the 19th century:

1873   J. A. Symonds Stud. Greek Poets v. 124   My wealth's a burly spear and brand.

Then we get to the main current sense, which is

2.a. Stout, sturdy, massively built, corpulent; of large body or trunk.

For some reason, sense 3. "'Big'; domineering, bluff" is listed as archaic.

In any case, none of the citations have anything to do with deprecated races or classes, except maybe this one from sense 3:

1605   J. Sylvester tr. G. de S. Du Bartas Triumph of Faith in tr. Deuine Weekes & Wks. 558   The Circumcised Crew Of Cabalists, and burly Talmudistes.

The OED starts its discussion of the etymology this way:

Middle English borlich , northern burli . Usually identified with Old High German burlîh , Middle High German burlîch exalted, lofty, stately, < *bur- cognate with Old High German burjan to lift up + -lîh = -ly suffix1.

Then there's some complex stuff about problems with the word not being attested in Old English or Old Norse, and problems with details of the phonology; but anyhow, any possible negative connotation of burly clearly isn't etymological.

The American Heritage Dictionary glosses burly as "Heavy, strong, and muscular; husky".

Wiktionary gives "Large, well-built, and muscular", and also these local variant usages:

Originating from the east end of London, England. An expressive term to mean something is good, awesome, amazing, unbelievable. e.g That goal was burly, or Räikkönen is a burly Formula 1 driver.

Originating from surfer culture and/or Southern California. An expressive term to mean something is of large magnitude, either good or bad, and sometimes both. e.g. "That wave was burly!" (meaning it was large, dangerous and difficult to ride). "This hike is going to be burly, but worth it because there is good body surfing at that beach." (meaning the hike is going to be hard work).

The Century dictionary gives a hint of negative connotation, along with a clearly false assertion about a change in usage:

Great in bodily size; bulky; large; stout: formerly used of things, but now only of persons, and implying some degree of coarseness.

Merriam-Webster gives simply "strongly and heavily built :  husky".

What about actual patterns of usage?

In today's Google News index, aside from the NYT piece, most of the examples are in sports articles: "Burly, blue-collar Big Ten West is wide open" (with a photo showing three white football players and one of indeterminate race); "Storm struggle against burly Beavers"; "CFB AM: Watch horde of burly Mizzou linemen 'twerk' at practice" (again a picture of mostly white football players); "Burly Narre Warren spearhead Kerem Baskaya slots 15 in slaughter of Doveton, needs one more for Casey Cardinia Football League season century" (where "burly" Kerem Baskaya appears to be blond as well as white); etc.

I found one story ("Camden County police adding K9s") that featured a "a burly former detective with more than 20 years experience" who appears from the photo to be African-American. But the other racially-identifiable non-sports references included one to St. Peter as "a burly fisherman"; "Stan Ellsworth, 'a big, burly, biker dude' who happens to be a former high school history teacher" [link]; and some "burly and heroic" Mongolian wrestlers.

But the NYT article says that

A reader named Joseph McBride pointed out that the word was often used as a racially loaded term in the Jim Crow South, and elsewhere, and conveyed the idea that big black men are especially fearsome and threatening.  

“As far back as my childhood in the 1950s or early ’60s, I remember the Milwaukee Journal stylebook stating that the phrase ‘burly Negro’ was not to be used,” Mr. McBride wrote. “I asked my father, a Journal reporter, why that expression was singled out, and he explained that it was a racial stereotype.”

Several publications have had formal or informal strictures against using the phrase, but not all were codified in stylebooks. The Times’s stylebook is silent on the subject.

So I looked back at the 200 years of examples indexed in the Corpus of Historical American English. I don't have time this morning to check every example — there are a total of 1447 of them — but looking at a sample over the years, I couldn't find any evidence that burly has been especially associated with people of color. Indeed, it looks to me as if the proportion suffers from the usual neglect of such references.

But it is true that the phrase "burly negro" occurs 12 times (though by no means all in deprecatory contexts), and this is large compared to the counts for "burly policeman" (10), "burly farmer" (8), "burly captain" (7), "burly Englishman" (4), "burly Frenchman" (4), "burly German" (4), etc.

And a check of the Google Books ngram viewer indicates that "burly Negro" did have a small usage boom in the early 20th century, reaching a peak frequency of about one per 6.25 million words, and pretty much dying out by 1940 or so:

So it's plausible that there might have been some sensitivity to that phrase in the past, though the evidence so far gives very little reason for it. At present, it doesn't seem to be true that the word burly itself has any particular racial association. Is there a reason to be concerned that news stories tend to mention the bodily dimensions of African-American men more often than other individuals, whatever terms are used? I don't know the answer to that question — it would make a good term project for someone, in a variety of different sorts of courses.

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54 Comments »

  1. Chips said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 10:44 am

    Certainly Australia's use of the term "burly" has no known racial connotations that I can find. Indeed Artie Beetson, one of Australia's greatest rugby league players and Australian captain, was often described as "burly" in praise of his size and strength–much needed in the front row position he played. He was Aboriginal.

    To confuse things, though, in Australia "berley (var. burley)" describes a method of spreading bait on water to catch fish!

  2. A.D. said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    Another similar football related adjective is "corn-fed".

  3. John Shutt said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    Wouldn't any adjective (or noun) used to describe African-Americans in the US South tend to pick up negative connotations, by contamination? (I distantly recall a Safire On Language column describing a full cycle, in which euphemisms kept becoming slurs and being abandoned, until eventually a slur abandoned many decades before got reintroduced as a euphemism.)

  4. A.D. said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 11:18 am

    Also, "southern speed".

  5. Alon said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 11:37 am

    If one asks Google ngrams for adjectives immediately following burly, black seems to be a favourite term. Now, this does not necessarily mean that its semantic prosody is negative; other terms that appear in that context, like young, seem to be positively connoted. But if one expands the search to the following nouns, the fact that burly black brute seems to have been a favourite expression is even more supportive of the claim.

    Funnily enough, burly black man seems to be definitely on the rise since the 1970s.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 11:39 am

    After a quick Google, I'm surprised to find no evidence that anyone but me has ever associated burly "having bulging muscles" with burly "of a tree, having a certain kind of bulge in the trunk or a branch".

    [(myl) According to the OED, burl originally meant "A small knot or lump in wool or cloth", "< from Old French bourle tuft of wool; compare Spanish borla tuft, tassel, and burr n."

    The "knot in wood" and "overgrown knot or excrescence in walnut and other woods, used in veneering; also, a log or piece of timber containing such a knot; also, a veneer made with this wood" dates from the late 19th century, with the earliest citations being dated 1885.]

  7. Chris Waters said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 12:12 pm

    Jerry Friedman: I can't provide documentary evidence, but I share your association. :)

  8. GeorgeW said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

    I (white) was born and raised in the Jim Crow South prior to the civil-rights movement. I have never associated 'burly' specifically with African Americans. Burly has always been associated with size (large) and built (husky).

  9. Levantine said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 12:51 pm

    The results of a search for "burly man" in Google Images does not bear out the claims made by Kyle Massey's piece. It's certainly true that the stereotype of the (menacing) "Big Black Man" exists, but I'm not convinced that the word "burly" by itself connotes this caricature. There are far more troubling examples of ethnically biased reporting that the NYT needs to question itself about: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/25/ny-times-michael-brown-no-angel_n_5708619.html; http://mondoweiss.net/2014/08/tally-arent-children.html.

  10. Paul said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 12:55 pm

    As a large white man (6'8"), I have been referred to as 'burly' my entire life. I grew up in the Upland South, and the term always meant 'large, big, muscular', and could be used for anything animate. It did seem to be restricted to masculine/male animate things. It never seemed to have a racial component. In fact, I know more than a few white Southerners whose nicknames are 'Burly', and they were significantly older than me, so they would've grown up in the Jim Crow era.

  11. Meesher said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 2:26 pm

    The usage of "articulate" that is now widely acknowledged to be problematic comes to mind, as do pejorative uses of "boy." When it comes to verifying subtle bigotry in language, maybe dictionaries and mainstream published books aren't the best places to look?

    [(myl) The two cases that you cite are quite different from one another. The offensive use of "boy" is extremely well documented: thus the OED's first and second senses are:

    1.a. A male servant, slave, assistant, junior employee, etc.
    Used (chiefly by white people) with reference to non-white slaves and (in English-speaking colonies) to non-white servants, labourers, etc. Also as a form of address (esp. as a summons).
    (a) In general use
    (b) Used (chiefly by white people) with reference to non-white slaves and (in English-speaking colonies) to non-white servants, labourers, etc. Also as a form of address (esp. as a summons). Now hist. and rare (usu. considered offensive).
    c. A non-white male. Now usu. considered offensive (as being associated with sense A. 1a(b)).

    The Century dictionary more than 100 years ago had: the gloss "Specifically, in the United States— In the South, especially before the abolition of slavery, a negro man."

    And any cursory search of historical documents would turn up uses corresponding to these offensive categories.

    In the case of "articulate", there is nothing like a similar history of offensive usage of that particular word. Rather, some people thought it was offensive by implication to praise someone as if it were surprising for them to have the cited feature. A clearer example might be a recommendation letter noting that the student "has no noticeable body odor, and in general comes promptly to appointments".]

  12. D.O. said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

    The correct measure IMHO is not total mentions, but relative measure. I did some Google ngrams of the burly <person>/<person> sorts. person = black man is leading the pack (and it did have a kick up during 1970s) with person = policeman is not far behind.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 3:28 pm

    Maybe today's headlines aren't a big enough sample size, but given the high percentage of college football players that are black (57% in the 6 highest-profile conferences that until recently controlled the BCS, according to the first plausible-looking stat I googled up), if most references to "burly" college football players actually turned out to be to references to white players, that would be slightly surprising and perhaps some indirect evidence of some continuing journalistic taboo against using "burly" to refer to a black player of equally imposing physique. That said, if this is an actual taboo, it's a new one on me.

    I think my own minds-eye prototypical image of a "burly" guy is probably a generic lumberjack in a flannel shirt eating a foot-high pile of flapjacks for breakfast in an illustrated children's book before going out to chop down trees. This is I suppose a generically white image, since despite what I suspect was substantial historical black participation in the timber industry in the South, there was very little racial diversity among the illustrated-children's-book-lumberjacks of my youth, although perhaps some might have been French Canadian.

    [(myl) "Burly" is generally used of linemen, and a larger proportion of them are white than for high-level football players in general.]

  14. Jonathan said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 3:35 pm

    If the pejorative connotations of a word are not described in any dictionary, shouldn't we still demand some kind of documentation showing such connotations? Otherwise, we just have to rely on the word of Kyle Massey and those of his ilk that they find it offensive, which doesn't seem good enough to me. They are trying to control the tone of the debate, but they are hardly impartial.

    To be honest, I think the real issue is that Michael Brown's supporters don't want to draw attention to facts about him that could influence public opinion the wrong way, such as his enormous size. When I first heard the story, all I was told was that he was 18 and a teenager, which, of course, made me think of some skinny, underdeveloped kid (since that's what I looked like when I was 18). With that image in mind, my sympathies were with him, since how could such a runt be any threat to the police? It's got to be racism and trigger-happy Southern cops who love shooting black kids for fun.

    But once other details about Brown came out, that he was 6'8" and nearly 300 pounds, not to mention that he had just robbed a store in broad daylight and pushed around the little Indian clerk who tried to stop him, I began to revise my attitude towards Brown and towards the case, and this is the kind of thing Brown's diehard supporters don't want to happen, so naturally they'll object to any description of Brown that makes him out to be a criminal or intimidating or any other negative quality.

  15. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

    Not to be confused with Scots birly, of a rotary disposition ;-)

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

    The Times piece ended rather unsatisfyingly because it indicated that in a follow-up story the description "tall and burly" got edited and didn't make it into print but didn't make clear what the final result was. Did it just get edited down to "tall" (which arguably changes the scope of the sentence)? Or was some other word that emphasized the other salient (or so the writer must have thought) aspect of the subject's physique swapped in — i.e., a synonym or near-synonym for burly that was perceived to be less loaded?

  17. Levantine said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 3:52 pm

    Jonathan, the fact that Michael Brown was burly, or big, or however you want to describe it doesn't mean that he deserved to be shot multiple times for no good reason. As for the supposed robbery that preceded his death, the policeman who shot him had no knowledge of it, so how on earth is it relevant?

  18. Victor Mair said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

    The first thing I think of upon hearing the adjective "burly" is "construction worker".

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 4:08 pm

    D.O.'s data suggesting that policemen are comparatively frequently described as "burly" is interesting and it would be interesting to delve deeper and see how neutral v. pejorative v. positive that sort of description seems to be in context (or if there have been any complaints about journalists using that word for them!). I don't think (once candidates are past a minimum threshold) police forces select for burliness in recruiting, but one desirable quality in a police officer is the ability to get people to comply with (hopefully lawful and reasonable) instructions without actually pointing a gun at them, much less firing it. Being physically intimidating is one way (perhaps not the ideal way, but better than fatal alternatives) to achieve that end, and being burly is one way (again, not the only way) to be physically intimidating.

    Military/law enforcement jargon has a phrase "command presence" that means something like "employing body language that maximizes the odds of other people paying attention to you and doing what you want them to do." It's a somewhat distinct concept from intimidation, not merely a euphemism for it, and there are certainly ways for the non-burly to exercise command presence, but again a certain degree of burliness probably doesn't hurt. Most early media coverage of Captain Johnson's arrival of the scene was positive, and I wonder if "burly" as applied to him was intended to convey some of the "command presence" vibe as a positive — here's a guy who can take charge of the situation and make everyone back down a bit and avoid further violence.

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

    To Prof. Mair's point, it's worth noting that "construction worker" is not historically a a stereotypically black occupation in the U.S. and indeed at least in some parts of the country it was a line of work where there was substantial exclusion of blacks (at least from unionized worksites where the pay was better) until not all that many decades ago.

  21. Jeff Carney said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

    I always picture lumberjacks.

  22. D.O. said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

    OK, so according to Google ngrams, "burly lineman" hits the dust, "burly lumberjack" is so-so, but "burly construction worker" kicks (ahem!) and really went up since 1985. And as of now the burliness is mentioned in 3-4 cases out of every 1000 when a construction worker is mentioned. Of course, J.W.Brewer is right, context is everything. It might be that "burly" applied to a black man is generally a negatively charged characteristic, but applied to a policeman is positive. Judging from this thread, it should be a very subtle difference though.

  23. a George said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

    I always associated Burl (as next to Ives) with his girth.

  24. Jonathan said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

    Of course Brown didn't deserve to get shot for what he did; also, what's relevant is not that the officer knew of Brown's recent crime, but that Brown himself knew of it and was suspicious that the cop was out to get him for that. What I'm picturing is that Brown indeed acted too aggressively with the officer, since he was under the influence of drugs anyway and was paranoid he was being pulled over for his robbery, and then the officer shot him in self-defense. Now maybe that's not how it happened, but I think it's much easier to interpret the cop's actions charitably when you have more information about what Brown was really like.

  25. Levantine said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

    A shot in the leg would have been sufficient to stop the burliest of individuals in his tracks (and that's assuming that he was behaving as you speculate he was, which I very much doubt).

  26. Jonathan said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 6:11 pm

    There are conflicting stories, and you seem very ready to believe just one side of it. For me, at any rate, I would be much less inclined to believe that Brown would have tried to grab the cop's gun if my image of him is some scrawny, geeky kid about to go off to college, than if my image of him is a hulking thug who just grabs whatever he feels entitled to and damn the consequences. So I think the campaign against "burly" is simply another attempt to control the public image of Brown in order to win sympathy for his side.

  27. Levantine said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 6:30 pm

    Since Brown was fleeing the officer when he was fatally shot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_of_Michael_Brown#Shooting_incident), your reconstruction of the event has no basis in truth. And speaking of words with unwelcome connotations, "thug"? Really?

  28. Alan Gunn said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 6:36 pm

    "A shot in the leg would have been sufficient to stop the burliest of individuals in his tracks"

    No. Police officers (and others carrying guns for self-defense) are taught to aim for the attacker's center of mass and to keep firing until the threat is over. People who have been shot many times are often capable of injuring or killing the person shooting them. Even fatal wounds are seldom instantly fatal. It's only on TV that people usually get shot once and fall down. I have no idea whether this shooting was justified. But if shooting him once was, shooting him six times was just as justified.

  29. Levantine said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 6:47 pm

    Alan Gunn, not that this is the place to be having this debate, but Michael Brown was running away from the policeman after the initial shot was fired, and he was, moreover, shot twice in the head (nowhere near the centre of mass). How he could be said to represent a threat by the sixth shot is beyond me.

  30. Rubrick said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

    As a computer programmer, I was initially thrown by "In any case, none of the citations have anything to do with deprecated races or classes." In programming, "deprecated" means, roughly, "marked as obsolete; no longer to be used". In general, something (a function, class, etc.) is deprecated when a better alternative is introduced. So I thought "deprecated race" would be something like Pygmy, perhaps.

    Also, completely irrelevant to this discussion but perhaps of interest to someone, "burly" is used as shorthand for "burlesque" by those in the biz.

  31. Jim said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

    "Burley" is a type of tobacco. There is a song "Pass The Burley Down" which is about stripping tobacco. By extension, you can map a "burley" to a person who strips burley tobacco, and as with any other Southern manual labor, ultimately possibly to black men.

  32. Alan Gunn said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 7:29 pm

    @Levantine. You have been misinformed. The autopsy showed that all the shots except the one in the top of his head) were fired at the front of Brown's body. Several hit him in the arm. Someone who claimed to be an eyewitness said he was running away, but the physical evidence disproved that claim. If Brown really had been running away, no shots would have been justified.

    You aim for the center of mass because shooting a pistol accurately is very difficult, especially under stressful conditions. If your shot goes astray, there's a decent chance it will hit someplace else if it's aimed at the center of mass. Only a fool would deliberately try to shoot a dangerous person in the leg. The fact that he was hit in the head doesn't mean the shots were aimed there. The one shot that entered the top of his head was probably fired as he was falling.

    Just a wild guess: You've never had any firearms training, right?

    I agree that this is off-topic, but you did bring it up.

  33. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 7:37 pm

    To me, burly conjures up images of bar bouncers, mob legbreakers, and the like. So, vaguely menacing, but without racial overtones.

    On a separate issue, I'm curious to know why "burly" Kerem Baskaya has a feminine surname.

  34. Bathrobe said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 7:44 pm

    There are plenty of Google hits for "burly Scotsman".

  35. Levantine said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 7:56 pm

    Alan Gunn, the eyewitnesses in any case agree that most of the shots were fired after Michael Brown turned back around to face the policeman. That he moved away from the car (i.e., fled) after the initial altercation is also something they corroborate. And no, I have not had any firearms training, and nor do I care that you may have. Finally, it was Jonathan who raised the topic, though I'm certainly at fault for taking the bait rather than letting his comment get lost in the thread.

  36. Eric P Smith said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 7:59 pm

    If the pejorative connotations of a word are not described in any dictionary, shouldn't we still demand some kind of documentation showing such connotations? Otherwise, we just have to rely on the word of Kyle Massey and those of his ilk that they find it offensive, which doesn't seem good enough to me. They are trying to control the tone of the debate, but they are hardly impartial.

    I agree, and I should have been with Jonathan all the way if he had left it at that.

  37. Mark Mandel said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

    @Rubrick: deprecate means, at root, "wish that [object] would go away" (etymology: from Latin deprecatus, past participle of deprecari to avert by prayer, from de- + precari to pray); more modernly, "to express disapproval of; play down, make little of"; and, by confusion with depreciate, "belittle, disparage". The computer usage of it is a specialization of "express disapproval of", and I remember being somewhat thrown by it when I first encountered it.

  38. Ray Girvan said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 9:43 pm

    A couple of data points unrelated to race:

    * "Burly detective" syndrome: a term coined in SF writing criticism for the writing defect of excessive periphrasis of proper names.
    * The Burly Brawl: the fight between Keanu Reeves and multiple copies of Hugo Weaving in The Matrix Reloaded.

  39. Lazar said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 10:12 pm

    Being a non-programmer, I first encountered deprecate in its general sense, but when I did encounter the programming usage, it really didn't throw me. It seemed like a pretty reasonable extension of the meaning, in the sense of devaluing something or considering it unsatisfactory.

  40. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 10:21 pm

    MYL: Thanks. Checking the OED, I see they don't have burly as in burly wood.

    Chris Waters: Okay, we're up to two!

  41. Zizoz said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 12:49 am

    Gregory Kusnick: Baskaya seems to be a Turkish name, and thus not gender-specific.

  42. Levantine said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 3:06 am

    In Turkish, Başkaya is a very burly surname indeed: it means chief rock.

  43. richardelguru said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 4:13 am

    I always think of Child #32
    "His huntsmen followed him to the Hall, to make them burly cheer "

  44. Doreen said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 5:42 am

    There was an episode of The Simpsons that featured a "Burly" fellow who was distinctly yellow: http://simpsons.wikia.com/wiki/Burly
    (For non-US readers, that fictional brand name is a spoof of this genuine brand that features a similar character on its packaging: http://www.mostlymuppet.com/2013/10/29/brawny/brawny/ )

  45. Rodger C said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 7:03 am

    I distantly recall a Safire On Language column describing a full cycle, in which euphemisms kept becoming slurs and being abandoned, until eventually a slur abandoned many decades before got reintroduced as a euphemism.

    I associate this with a Jules Feiffer cartoon (about African Americans) which, unfortunately, doesn't show up easily on Google.

  46. SamC said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 9:02 am

    I'm yet another commenter who had never associated "burly" with any racial overtones (and have used it/heard it used more as a close synonym to brawny). I wonder if the sensitivity towards the word comes from the "Big Black Man" stereotype, which I'd agree is prejudicial, and referring to Brown that way would be offensive.

  47. Ray Girvan said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 1:08 pm

    @SamC: prejudicial

    I think that's probably the issue. I'm likewise unaware of any racial overtones to "burly" – but its semantics are definitely in the area of "huge threatening lummox", and it could prejudice people's assessment of actions in an altercation.

  48. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

    Ray Girvan: perhaps prejudice is in the eye of the beholder – in evaluating the reasonableness of the actions of the various participants in an altercation/confrontation, at least some people (including some of the sorts of people who sit on juries in the United States who may be asked to consider whether a particular fatal shooting was criminal or was instead e.g. justifiable as self-defense) would consider it potentially quite salient to know the relative "burliness" of the participants (you really want to know how physically threatening they were in the context of the actual incident, and their baseline burliness is obviously an imperfect proxy for that, but still potentially relevant rather than irrelevant). (To illustrate the point: if a policeman said he had drawn his gun and fired because he was in fear for his life, his story might be deemed less credible if the other participant in the altercation was not only unarmed but a "seven-stone weakling" barely five feet tall whereas the policeman was a person of median-or-greater burliness.) That is why I am interested in knowing whether the Times decided the general question of the decedent's physical build was itself taboo, versus simply deciding (plausibly or otherwise) that "burly" was in context an inappropriately loaded word to use to refer to that characteristic, which nonetheless remained salient to the story but could equally well be referred to via some near-synonym that was thought to be less loaded.

  49. bfwebster said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 10:55 pm

    I'm 61, American. For me, "burly" conjures up images of big Irish cops and husky steelworkers — in fact, I think I would be _less_ likely to use it to describe African Americans than I would for Europeans.

  50. zafrom said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 1:20 am

    Over in The Times, 2 days ago paulliu430 mentioned Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes (played 1916-1934, including 4 years with the St. Louis Cardinals; 5' 10", 175). Speaking of burly bodily dimensions there is also accidental boxer Burleigh Sullivan, played by 5' 10" Harold Lloyd in the 1936 movie The Milky Way. However much that Lloyd weighed, his character's name was of course for a laugh, though Burleigh did try to defend the honor of his sister, played by perky Helen Mack. Regardless of recent events and the blue and red lines on the graph above, there are some happier associations with burliness.

  51. djw said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

    My first thought on seeing "burly" in isolation is a member of Hell's Angels, although I have no idea why. We don't have a lot of stories about steelworkers or fabled east Texas lumberjacks, but big bikes have been popular here for a long time.

  52. Gertt Loveday said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 9:46 pm

    I loved reading this. It brought back something my father used often to say. For some reason he had a violent dislike of Augustus John (perhaps his sex life was too frisky). My father said people used to get very upset with John over his selfish behaviour but "Augustus John was a great big burly bloke. He didn't care about any of 'em."
    These days my sisters and I often describe ourselves as great big burly girls. We don't care about any of 'em.

  53. RobertL said,

    August 31, 2014 @ 2:42 am

    I always associate burly with police officers in English detective stories, where they are stereotypically big and dumb.

    I'm sure that Sherlock Holmes once had a burly Sussex policeman break open a front door for him.

  54. Meesher said,

    September 1, 2014 @ 5:35 pm

    @myl:
    I'm afraid I wasn't clear enough, but your response illustrates precisely why the OED isn't up to the task you're charging it with. An offensive use of "boy" is extremely well documented, but the dictionary doesn't cover the discomfort many black people feel towards other uses of the word, including when it's used to indicate black male children. The relevant sense of the avoidance term "little man" is bizarrely marked as "dated."

    And your defence of "articulate" seems to be that there are worse put-downs you could possibly use about a person, while "some people thought it was offensive" is a fairly clumsy way to remove any possible disagreement to the past.

    I stand by my original point, although I do apologize for not being clear in which sense of "boy" I was referring to, or rather, in not elaborating on how the pejorative sense has colored other senses.

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