If you’ve been around English speakers long enough, chances are you’ve heard the phrase “strong like bull”; maybe it’s even been directed at you. Maybe at the time, you took it like a compliment, perhaps you thought it was an insult, or maybe you can’t even begin to guess what it means.
Whatever the case, you’ve wound up here to find answers.
Let’s break it down to make sure you not only understand the idiom but can use it in your day-to-day conversations.
Unlike many other idioms, the phrase “strong like bull” means exactly what you would expect.
“Strong like bull” means strong like bull.
Bulls are incredibly large and powerful animals. “Strong like bull” is a simile; a comparison using like or as.
“Strong as bull” can be used to describe a person's physical strength and often alludes to their overall fitness and stamina, as well.
To be “strong like bull” is to possess great strength and physical fortitude.
The phrase “strong like bull” is unique as it can be directed at the speaker or the listener. Here’s an example:
Mary is working on the farm and lifting heavy equipment by herself. Laura asks her if she needs help, and Mary replies: “I’ve got it. I’m strong like bull.”
In this case, Mary is showing off her strength. Here’s an example of the phrase being directed at the listener:
Oliver is working out with Jake and is impressed by the amount he can lift. In excitement, he says: “Wow! Strong like bull!”
Here, Oliver is commending Jake on his strength and likening it to that of a bull. It is a compliment.
While the origin of the phrase is unclear and likely older than most people think, the idiom was popularized in the 1950s. Uncle Tonoose, a character on the sitcom The Danny Thomas Show, said the phrase to describe his physical state while at a doctor’s appointment.
The meaning of the phrase has not changed much over time; it still means strong, fit, and healthy. However, in modern use, the focus is usually on the strength aspect.
Additionally, "strong like bull" has come to be used in conjunction with other idioms and usually has a follow-up phrase said by the original speaker or the listener.
It is unknown where the phrase first originated, but it is likely to have agricultural roots.
“Strong like bull” is a fairly common idiom, but depending on the region can have different variations. Here are some other sayings that mean strong, fit, healthy, tough, etc.
The first three are synonymous with “strong like bull,” and the rest are similar enough that there is crossover in the situations in which they may be used.
- Strong as a bull
- Strong like ox
- Strong as a horse
- In fine fettle (healthy, doing well)
- Fit as a fiddle (fit, strong, healthy)
- Tough as nails (resilient mentally/emotionally/physically)
- Strong as the wind (strong, resilient)
- Strong as Zeus (strong)
- A force to be reckoned with (strong and resilient usually in character, but sometimes also physically)
- A pillar of strength (usually strength of character, not physical strength)
The idiom “strong like bull” can be used in many situations. Generally, it is a casual quip following a show of strength. It can also be used when talking about someone who isn’t there, describing someone else or yourself, and sincerely or sarcastically.
While the phrase is a neutral to positive term, it can be combined with other idioms to poke fun at someone. A common follow-up someone might use is “smell like one too” to reverse the compliment into an insult. Here’s an example:
Paula feels proud after moving many boxes into her new apartment. She exclaims: “Strong like bull!” while striking a pose.
Her friend Nina who has been helping her move says: “Smell like one too!”
In this case, the statement is split between two people and used in a friendly and jesting manner, but Paula could have said the second half as well, or, in a different situation, Nina could have said, “smell like one too” to be rude.
“Strong like bull” is also a common phrase used to describe someone in conjunction with the idioms: “smart like streetcar,” “smart like tractor,” “smart like dump truck,” or “smart like stump.”
In this case, the saying is describing someone with lots of brawn and little brain. Example:
Nick might describe Anna as “strong like bull, smart like streetcar” to say that while she is strong, she is not very intelligent.
While this is more on the rude side, it is not always outright insulting, depending on the intention behind it.