origin of "mess with the bull, get the horns"?

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 14 10:30:04 UTC 2010

I am curious about the history of this one as well. It sounds like an
expression that would have been around for some time, yet it hardly
cracked it in print. I found several "get the horns" hits on GB, yet,
none with the full expression. Plenty of it on-line and I recall two
film scenes where the line was prominent. One was an otherwise
forgettable movie where the line comes from the mouth of Nicholas Cage
(in fact, it's so forgettable, and he's done so many forgettable roles,
that I don't recall which film it was). The other, of course, comes from
The Breakfast Club:

> "Don't mess with the bull, young man, you'll get the horns."

Lately, it's become fashionable to mention it in context of various
sports teams, not the least of which would be the Bulls.

> if you mess with these bulls on the court, you might get the horns

The latest comes in an analysis of the forthcoming FA Cup final between
Chelsea and Portsmouth:

> Since Everton last caused something approaching an FA Cup final upset
> in 1995, Middlesbrough, Newcastle (twice), Southampton and Millwall
> have all seen what happens if you miss the big four bulls at Wembley -
> you get the horns.

> Any old Texas cattle rancher will tell you, "Son, when you mess with a
> bull you better be ready to get the horns." Sunderland defender Alan
> Hutton found this out the hard way earlier today when he got
> head-butted by Jozy "The Bull" Altidore.

OK, the last one is crossing the line--"any old Texas cattle rancher"?
Sounds fishy to me.

Network World from 2000 blames "the Old West":

> Don't expect to walk away from this rodeo. There's an ol' sayin' in
> the West: "If you mess with the bull, you get the horns."

That does sound more plausible than Texas. But both have equal amount of

The Spoof has a better version:

> President Obama concluded his criticism of Arizona by saying "it's
> time to teach this bitch a lesson ... you f_ck with this bull, you're
> going to get the horns."

Current news produced only 9 hits, three of them quoting The Breakfast
Club. All but one of the rest are above. The archives don't do much
better--the timeline shows two hits in the 80s, a handful in the 90s and
a steady, but slow, stream since 2000. But the earliest is not from The
Breakfast Club:

> Peter Puck belongs in sin bin
> Pay-Per-View - Chicago Tribune - ProQuest Archiver - Feb 25, 1975
> ... comes when a player gets killed a lot of the foul matter will come
> down on the heads of NBC Sports You play with the bull you sometimes
> get the horns.

Another version is more likely to be hidden from view--not because it's
literally hidden, but because it's even less likely to show up in print
until recently:

> Don't tempt the devil by leaving stuff in car
> Pay-Per-View - Toronto Star - ProQuest Archiver - Oct 28, 1995
> ... in this If a place seems safe even if it is safe it's probably
> unwise to tempt the devil. Because youre almost sure to get the horns.
> *** InfomartOnline ***

There are some variations (2010):

> Mess with the Gorlok, get the horns

In case you're wondering what's a "gorlock",

> the Gorlok is a mythical creature with the paws of a speeding cheetah,
> horns of a fierce buffalo and face of a loyal Saint Bernard, according
> to the Webster University Athletic Web site.

Well, at least, it has the horns.

In any case, The Breakfast Club clearly was not the coinage. The ChiTrib
1975 use is clearly too tame to be of use and it just does not sound
like an expression a Texas rancher would use. So, I am stuck. No origin.
Any ideas?

A couple more interesting bits, for good measure.

The English dialect dictionary. Volume 3. H--L. Edited by Joseph Wright.
Horn. 2. p. 233
> (15) /to have got the horn/, to be lustful; (16) /to have got the horn
> in one/, to be slightly tipsy; ... (23) /to get the horns/, to be made
> a cuckold.

The latter is cited to Lauderdale's Poems (1796).

Hampton's Magazine. Volume 26:3. March 1911
Columbus--A Tragedy-Farce in Strikes. By Frederick Palmer. p. 337
> A play must have a villain and, as EK Stewart's friends will tell you,
> he got the horns and the forked tail. Stewart is a practical,
> hardheaded, efficient, self-made type of business man who is too
> vigorous at sixty-four to think of retiring from an active career.

Pictures of Travel. By Heinrich Heine. Tr. by Charles G. Leland.
Philadelphia: 1856
Part Third. (1826.) The Island Norderney. p. 153
> For neither ladies nor gentlemen bathe here under cover, but walk
> about in the open sea. On this account the bathing places of the two
> sexes are far apart, and yet not altogether //too/ /far, and he who
> carries a good spy-glass, can every where in this world see many
> marvels. There is a legend of the island that a modern Actseon in this
> manner once beheld a bathing Diana, and wonderful to relate, it was
> not he, but the //husband/ /of the beauty who got the horns!

The origin of the family, private property and the state. By Friedrich
Engels. Tr. by Ernest Untermann. Chicago: 1902
3. The Pairing Family. p. 86
> In both of these novels they "get one another:" in the German novel
> the man gets the girl, in the French novel the husband gets the horns.

So there is some printed evidence for "get the horns", although not
combined with either bull or devil.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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