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

Charles Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Fri May 14 17:13:56 UTC 2010

1967  George W. Boswell, "Folk Wisdom in Northeastern Kentucky," _Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin_ 33: 14.  "Play with the bull and you will get the horns."

Not the origin, of course . . . .


---- Original message ----
>Date: Fri, 14 May 2010 06:30:04 -0400
>From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> (on behalf of Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM>)
>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.
>     VS-)
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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

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