Now Playing: Dim Tim and the Vortex of Doom.
Dear Word Detective: We are being swamped daily with dire news from the financial markets of the world. Stock markets fall into bottomless pits, then we get “dead cat bounces.” I can work that one out. But we also get “bull” markets and “bear” markets. “Bull” seems reasonable, someone charging about buying everything they can lay their hands on. But “bear”? What is so shy and retiring about a bear that makes them sell everything in sight? I think, given the choice, I’d rather be in a field with a bull than a grizzly! Come to think of it, where does “grizzly” come from? There’s me getting my two questions in one. — David, Ripon, England.
Hmm. That seems more like four or five questions, but I’ve never been good with figures, which is how we got in this mess to start with. Yes, folks, it’s all my fault. I was in the supermarket a few months ago and saw one of those “Buy two, get one free with double gas rewards and a Popsicle” specials on cat food. But, over the vigorous protests of the cashier, I only bought one bag, a reckless act which apparently tipped a very delicate balance somewhere in Zurich and sent the world economy plunging into Lake Fuhgeddaboudit. Sorry about that.
Onward. Most people who pay any attention at all to the stock markets know that it’s common to hear the markets on a given day described as either “bullish” (marked by rising stock prices) or “bearish” (showing a tendency toward falling prices). “Bullish” and “bearish” are also used as shorthand for “optimistic” and “pessimistic,” respectively. The slogan of Merrill-Lynch, for example, has for many years been “Merrill-Lynch is bullish on America” (although how that fits with the recent collapse of the firm and its sale to Bank of America remains to be seen).
“Bear” as applied to an investor or stock trader dates back to the early 18th century, and comes from the adage “Don’t sell the bearskin before you’ve shot the bear.” This is essentially what market “bears” do, selling stock they do not own for delivery at a future date, betting that by then the price will have dropped, giving them a profit on the trade. This is also known as “short selling,” because the seller is “short” the actual shares at the time of sale. Such “bearish” sellers were actually known on the 18th century London stock exchange as “bearskin jobbers,” later shortened to simply “bears.”
Bulls do the opposite, buying shares now on the hope that the price will rise. Various theories have been offered as to why “bull” was picked as the opposite of “bear.” Both bull-baiting and bear-baiting were popular “sports” at the time, making the animals convenient symbols. It’s also true that real bears tend to be cagier and more cautious than bulls, who tend to charge first and think later, if at all. And, of course, the fact that the phrase “bulls and bears” is alliterative certainly doesn’t hurt.
As for “grizzly” bears, they take their name from the gray or “grizzled” (from the Old French “gris”) tips on their fur. They are also known as “silvertip” bears.