Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Bull Sessions

 My colleague Jim Al-Khalili, who exceeds my 21 years in the Department of Physics at the University of Surrey asked a question about the term "Bull Sessions" on Twitter a couple of days ago:

I first heard the term, I think, after arriving at Surrey, when I found that the nuclear group had these informal talks in which lots of discussion was intended, called "Bull Sessions".  Usually they were based on talks from researchers in the group, and differed in style from the kind of more formal invited seminar from a visiting speaker.

You can follow the replies to Jim's tweet to see what other people know about the term.  I was slightly surprised to learn the following in the Oxford English Dictionary, which mentions the phrase, dating it back to at least 1920.  It appears unrelated to the animal, or the papal bull, but is related to the sense of bull meaning "Trivial, insincere, or untruthful talk or writing; nonsense" from which bullshit derives.  So, in that sense, it means an informal discussion.  It's a US term, originally.

The etymology of bull in this sense is listed as unknown according to the OED, but lists some similar sounding and meaning words in Old French, Modern Icelandic and Middle English which might (I suppose one is supposed to infer) be related. 

Interesting!  I don't know how it got into the Surrey group, but my guess is that possibly Ron Johnson brought it back from the US after doing a postdoc there and becoming head of the Surrey group (as well as one of Jim's PhD supervisors).

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