What in the Word?! The racist roots of ‘bulldozer’
Please note: this blog post discusses language that some readers may find offensive.
And you thought the 2016 US presidential election was shocking…
Like the 2016 election, the 1876 election between Democrat Samuel J. Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was one of just five where the winner of the popular vote, here Tilden, did not win the office. A legal battle – and some backroom politicking – awarded Hayes 20 electoral votes that were in dispute, giving him a one-vote victory and marking the slimmest margin in American history.
Also like the 2016 election, bitter campaigning put language in the public spotlight.
Just as 2016 brought us fake news, 2004 brought us swift-boating, and 2000 brought us red states and blue states, the 1876 election brought the term bull dozing into the national vocabulary – with a racialized meaning that is shocking and largely forgotten today.
‘A dose fit for a bull’?
While today’s Democrats are known for championing minorities, it was far different picture in the 1870s when many Southern Democrats worked to disenfranchise black people newly freed after the Civil War, just as black men gained the right to vote enshrined in the US Constitution in the 15th Amendment in 1870. To suppress their vote or coerce them away from casting their ballots for Republicans, Democratic supporters would intimidate black voters with threats or acts of violence. This practice especially plagued the 1876 presidential election, and in Louisiana came to be called bull-dozing.
Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green finds an early and notable mention of bulldoze in a 15th November, 1876 edition of Chicago’s Inter-Ocean, which discusses the buzzword just like The Washington Post would break down bigly today. The article, ‘What Is Bulldozing?’, is worth quoting at length:
Our civil war added a large number of words to the American idiom. Every branch of industry, every new way of thinking, every change in politics, is fully represented by a new word or a peculiar phrase. The license of the press and independent freedom of daily speech have also enlarged if they have not enriched the national vocabulary. Bulldozled is the latest invention and acquisition which is puzzling the etymologists just now. It originated in Louisiana, and its meaning has been thus explained by a Southern newspaper:
The pleasant brethren of the “Stop”—a political society—were in the habit of giving warning calls once, twice, three times, to those whom they desired and demanded should join the “Stop.” If on the third and last call, they did not comply with the demand and take the oath, the unfortunate negro who refused was taken to the woods and given a “bull-dose” of the cowhide on his naked back. A cool hundred well laid on was considered a bull’s dose for once: and the victim either listened to such potent reasoning and took the oath as a member, or fled the country. From a bull’s dose soon came the verb to bull-dozle.
In the election dispatches from Louisiana the term has been applied to those parishes where the negroes were intimidated from voting. There are five bulldozled, or “bulldozed,” parishes.
The Oxford English Dictionary entry for the adjective bulldozed also cites an American newspaper from 1876 mentioning the Stop society:
If a negro is invited to join it [a society called ‘The Stop’], and refuses, he is taken to the woods and whipped. This whipping is called a ‘bull-doze’, or doze fit for a bull.’
A bull-doze might literally be understood, then, as an act forceful enough to knock out, even kill, a bull – having developed from a dose of the bullwhip, a whip with a long, heavy lash using for driving cattle. The doze variant of dose quickly settled in, perhaps due to ease of pronunciation.
While this account of the etymological origin of the word bulldoze appeared in numerous newspapers in the wake of the 1876 election, there is, however, some reason to doubt it. In the earliest known Louisiana examples of the word, dating from the summer of 1876, bulldozing often didn’t refer to whipping or flogging, and evidence suggests that the ‘z’ spelling may actually have predated the ‘s’ spelling. There are even some hints that the word may have been used earlier in an entirely different meaning. What is certainly true, however, is that the word bulldoze spread in English specifically because of its use in referring to the intimidation of black voters in Louisiana in the momentous election of 1876. By December of that year, it was in wide use in US political circles, even turning up in the diary of Rutherford B. Hayes himself.
The OED documents the agent noun, bulldozer, in 1876, which extended to a mobbish kind of ‘bully’ in the 1880s. During this decade, bulldoze started spreading as a term for any violent coercion or intimidation. We can see this generalization in the Saturday Review in 1881: ‘A ‘bull-dose’ means a large efficient dose of any sort of medicine or punishment’. That year, the OED also finds bulldozer as a nickname for a large pistol – guns ever capable of intimidation.
Bulldozing the metaphors
Word sleuth Michael Quinion is instructive when it comes to bulldozing’s application to the modern bulldozer, or ‘a powerful track-laying tractor with caterpillar tracks and a broad curved upright blade at the front for clearing ground’. He cites a bulldozer in a Wisconsin newspaper in 1898 for a machine that could bend big pieces of metal. He notes of the term: ‘There’s no way to tell whether this sense appeared independently or had been borrowed from the earlier ones, but the idea of forceful manipulation or bending something to one’s will are common to both.’ It seems likely, though, that the bullying bulldozer had become widespread and common enough to extend to machinery.
In the 1910s, the mechanical bulldozer named canal boats with bow blades used to break up ice, the name handily applied to the crawlers fitted with rubble-removing blades as the technology emerged in the 1920s. Kansas farmer James Cummings and draftsman J. Earl McLeod are credited with building the first modern bulldozer, marketed as a sort of attachment for tractors, in 1923. It was the Caterpillar Tractor Company – which gives us the now genericised caterpillar tractor – that came to dominate the business.
We might say Caterpillar bulldozed the competition. This figurative bulldoze, evidenced by 1948, grew out of bulldoze as a verb for ‘to use a bulldozer or push by means of one’, hence ‘aggressively clear one’s way like a bulldozer’ – which the word bulldozer itself did from metaphor to machine and back again. But it was the original racial politics of the term that ended up getting cleared out during bulldozer’s incredible semantic transformation.