One of the twelve signs of the Zodiac (April 20 to May 21). The time for ploughing, which in Egypt was performed by oxen or bulls.
At last from Aries rolls the bounteous sun, And the bright Bull receives him.
Thomson: Spring, 26, 27.
Bull. A blunder, or inadvertent contradiction of terms, for which the Irish are proverbial. The British Apollo, 1740, says the term is derived from one Obadiah Bull, an Irish lawyer of London, in the reign of Henry VII., whose blundering in this way was notorious.
Bull is a five-shilling piece. “Half a bull” is half-a-crown. From bulla, a great leaden seal. Hood, in one of his comic sketches, speaks of a crier who, being apprehended, “swallowed three hogs (shillings) and a bull.”
The pope's bull. So called from the bulla or capsule of the seal appended to the document. Subsequently the seal was called the bulla, and then the document itself.
The edict of the Emperor Charles IV. (1356) had a golden bulla, and was therefore called the golden bull. (See Golden Bull.)
A public-house sign, the cognisance of the house of Clare. The bull and the boar were signs used by the partisans of Clare, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Richard III.).
A bull in a china shop. A maladroit hand interfering with a delicate business; one who produces reckless destruction.
A brazen bull. An instrument of torture. (See Phalaris.)
He may bear a bull that hath borne a calf (Erasmus: Proverbs)
“He that accustometh hym-selfe to lytle thynges, by lytle and lytle shalbe able to go a waye with greater thynges” (Taverner).
To take the bull by the horns. To attack or encounter a threatened danger fearlessly; to go forth boldly to meet a difficulty. The figure is taken from bull-fights, in which a strong and skilful matadore will grasp the horns of a bull about to toss him and hold it prisoner.
John Bull. An Englishman. Applied to a native of England in Arbuthnot's ludicrous History of Europe. This history is sometimes erroneously ascribed to Dean Swift. In this satire the French are called Lewis Baboon, and the Dutch Nicholas Frog.
“One would think, in personifying itself, a nation would ... picture something grand, heroic, and imposing, but it is characteristic of the peculiar humour of the English, and of their love for what is blunt, comic, and familiar, that they have embodied their national oddities in the figure of a sturdy, corpulent old fellow ... with red waistcoat, leather breeches, and a stout oaken cudgel ... [whom they call] John Bull.” —Washington Irving.
Bull and Gate. Bull and Mouth Public-house signs. A corruption of Boulogne Gate or Mouth, adopted out of compliment to Henry VIII., who took Boulogne in 1544.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894