From Middle English sulen, sulien (“to become dirty; to defile, pollute, taint”), from Old English sylian (“to soil, pollute; to sully”), from Proto-Germanic *suliwōną, *sulwōną, *sulwijaną (“to make dirty; to sully”), from Proto-Indo-European *sūl- (“thick liquid, muck”), perhaps conflated partially with Old French souillier (“to soil”) (modern French souiller) from the same Germanic source. The word is cognate with Danish søle (“to sully”), Dutch zaluwen (“to sully”) (Middle Dutch saluwen (“to sully”)), German sühlen (“to sully”), Old Saxon sulian (“to sully”), Swedish söla (“to sully”). Also compare Middle English sulpen (“to defile, pollute”), Old English solian (“to soil, become defiled, make or become foul”), and see more at soil.
- (Received Pronunciation, General American) IPA(key): /ˈsʌli/
Audio (GA) (file)
- Rhymes: -ʌli
- Hyphenation: sul‧ly
- (transitive) To soil or stain; to dirty.
He did not wish to sully his hands with gardening.
1672, The Earl of Roscommon [Wentworth Dillon, 4th Earl of Roscommon], “[Appendix, Containing Translations of Various Odes, &c. [...]] Ode VI.—To the Romans.”, in Philip Francis, transl., Horace. Translated by Philip Francis, D.D. With an Appendix, Containing Translations of Various Odes, &c. by Ben Jonson, Cowley, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Addison, Swift, Bentley, Chatterton, G. Wakefield, Porson, Byron, &c. and by Some of the Most Eminent Poets of the Present Day, volume II, London: Printed by A[braham] J[ohn] Valpy, M.A. and sold by all booksellers, published 1831, OCLC 1003976217, lines 1–6, page 164:
- Those ills your ancestors have done, / Romans, are now become your own; / And they will cost you dear, / Unless you soon repair / The falling temples which the gods provoke, / And statues sullied yet with sacrilegious smoke.
- (transitive) To corrupt or damage.
She tried to sully her rival’s reputation with a suggestive comment.
- (intransitive) To become soiled or tarnished.
1730, Francis Bacon, “The Lord Bacon’s Questions, with Dr. Meverel’s Solutions, Concerning the Compounding, Incorporating, or Union of Metals or Minerals; which Subject is the First Letter of His Lordship’s Alphabet”, in The Works of Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, Viscount St Alban, and Lord High Chancellor of England, volume III, London: J. and J. Knapton [et al.], OCLC 926240085, page 215:
- [G]old bears the fire, which ſilver doth not: but that is an excellency in nature, but it is nothing at all in uſe; for any dignity in uſe I know none, but that ſilvering will ſully and canker more than gilding; […]