The Bull Ensign is the senior ensign of a Navy command (ship, squadron, or shore activity). In addition to normal duties, the Bull Ensign assumes various additional responsibilities such as teaching less-experienced ensigns about life at sea, planning and coordinating wardroom social activities, making sure that the officers’ mess runs smoothly, and serving as an officer (such as treasurer) for Navy-related social organizations. The Bull Ensign is responsible for preventing junior ensigns in his command from embarrassing themselves and the Navy. Though the position often has little formal authority, the Bull Ensign serves as the focal point for the unit’s expression of spirit and pride. A Bull Ensign will often be recognized by his uniform’s oversized gold ensign collar device engraved with the word “Bull.”
The origin of the term Bull Ensign is uncertain, though the combination of the words “bull” and “ensign” likely occurred in the mid-20th century.
The first published use of the word “ensign” indicating the lowest rank of commissioned naval officer dates to 1708 when it was used in the London Gazette. The US Navy adopted the rank in 1862 as a replacement for the rank of passed midshipman (a Naval Academy graduate).
“Bull” has a wide variety of meanings ranging from a male bovine (circa 1200), or other large animal (1615), to an ecclesiastical (1297) or civil edict (1696), and even a falsehood or nonsense (1630). Bull is slang for a Royal Navy ship and an English person (1835); a railway locomotive (1859); a police officer/prison guard/detective (1893); something large and powerful (1889); and a logging foreman or boss (1942).
Terms possibly related to Bull Ensign are: Bulldog, a watchman or police officer (1828); Bulldozer, a bully/thug (1876); Bull-eater, an aggressive soldier (1918); Bull gang, a labor crew (1918); Bull nurse, a cowboy accompanying cattle on train destined for the slaughterhouse (1922); Bull camp, a labor camp (1931); and Bull Chief, a US Navy chief petty officer (1961).
Although the term “Bull Ensign” may signify an ensign behaving in a dominant manner, like a bull toward a herd of ensigns, it has also been suggested that the Bull Ensign’s actions can be seen as “bullish” (optimistic and hard working), seeking promotion to Lieutenant (junior grade).
The opposite of a Bull Ensign is the Boot or George Ensign - the officer with the least seniority in the wardroom. The term “Boot Ensign” likely originated in the first half of the 20th century. A “Boot” is an inexperienced/ignorant Navy or Marine Corps recruit in basic training (1911), or a junior officer, as mentioned in Martin Dibner’s World War II novel, The Deep Six, published in 1953.
The origin of the term “George Ensign” is uncertain. George is slang for letting someone else [George] do a task (1910), someone who is knowledgeable and wise (1917), and a low-status Pullman railroad porter (1939).
Saint George’s Ensign, traditionally flown by the Royal Navy, is a flag with a red cross on a white field. It was first mentioned in 1611, and subsequently described in Naval Tracts (1704) as being flown by admirals from the head of the top mast of warships.
Sources of Information:
Oliver, Raymond. Why is the Colonel Called "Kernal"? The Origin of the Ranks and Rank Insignia Now Used by the United States Armed Forces. McClellan Air Force Base, CA: Office of History, Sacramento Air Logistics Center, 1983 [A useful definition and history of the rank of ensign is available online this publication.].
Oxford English Dictionary. vol. 1. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933): 995-996, 1165-1167. [definitions of “boot,” and “bull”].
Oxford English Dictionary. vol. 3. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933): 202. [definitions of “ensign”].
Oxford English Dictionary. vol. 4. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933): 128. [definitions of “George”].
Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Volume 1, A-G. (New York: Random House, 1994): 241-244, 299-304, 879. [An extensive selection of American English slang terms using the words “boot,” “bull,” and “George.”].
Note: The Naval Historical Center Website Committee is interested in determining the earliest use of the terms Bull Ensign, Boot Ensign and George Ensign. If you find published examples of their use from the 1960s or earlier, please send a photocopy of the page in which the term(s) appear, and accompanying bibliographic information (author, book or magazine title, date of publication, publisher, page number, etc.) to the Committee. Please highlight the terms’ usage with a yellow marker.