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.