HA ha.

Dear Word Detective: Have you seen the word “cully” used to mean “trick” or “deceive”? Where does it come from? Was it in use in the mid-1800’s? — Deborah L.


A bitter disappointment.

That’s an interesting question, but I’d really like to know, as the late Paul Harvey used to put it, the rest of the story. Are you reading a book set in the mid-19th century and trying to determine whether the word “cully” is genuine slang of the period or perhaps just a typographical error? If so, your concern is well-founded. The gentle art of professional proofreading, at which I myself labored for several years in my youth, is in eclipse these days. This is especially true in book publishing, where the production budget for a given book, including proofreading, is mercilessly tied to an estimate of its future sales. So if you want a letter-perfect read, stick to Stephen King and Tom Clancy. For anything without embossed lettering on the cover, however, bring your own dictionary and several large grains of salt.

In any case, “cully” is indeed slang for “to deceive, trick or make a fool of” someone, and, while considered obsolete today, it was in common use from at least the late 1600s onward (“Having for some time being cullied out of his money,” Life of Muggleton, 1676). The noun form of “cully,” meaning “one who is cheated” or, more generally, “a fool, dupe, sucker, or simpleton,” is a few years older, its first appearance in print (so far discovered) coming in 1664. Both the noun and the verb forms may well be substantially older, however, because “cully” was originally thieves’ cant, slang of the criminal underworld, a species of speech which often took many decades to appear in print during that period.

Interestingly, the noun form of “cully,” which primarily meant “fool” or “dupe” when it first appeared, was also used to mean “pal, friend, workmate,” a meaning that became more common in the 19th century. Incidentally, “cully” in its various forms and senses has no connection to “cull” meaning “to select and eliminate members of a group,” as in “culling a herd of livestock.”

“Cully” is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “of uncertain origin.” A connection has been suggested to the Romany (Gypsy) term “chulai,” meaning “man,” but evidence is lacking so far. “Cully” may also be connected to “cullion,” a fairly obscure English word that originally meant “testicle” and later was used to mean “rascal, knave, vile fellow.”

Page 1 of 2 | Next page