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], “The Sixth Ode, of the Third Book of Horace”, in Poems by the Earl of Roscomon, London: J[acob] Tonson, published 1717, lines 1–6, page 153:
- 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 ſully’d yet with Sacrilegious Smoke.
1826, [James Fenimore Cooper], chapter I, in The Last of the Mohicans; a Narrative of 1757. [...] In Two Volumes, volume I, Philadelphia, Pa.: H[enry] C[harles] Carey & I[saac] Lea, Chestnut-Street, OCLC 1538219, page 10:
- His nether garment was of yellow nankeen, closely fitted to the shape, and tied at his bunches of knees by large knots of white ribbon, a good deal sullied by use.
- (transitive) To corrupt or damage.
She tried to sully her rival’s reputation with a suggestive comment.
2010, Ken Gormley, “One Nation Divided”, in The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, New York, N.Y.: Crown Publishers, →ISBN, page 431:
2014, Dedra Mcdonald Birzer, “To Delight in Sacrifice: True Love in Jane Eyre”, in Charlotte Brontë, Jill Kriegel, editor, Jane Eyre: With an Introduction and Contemporary Criticism (Ignatius Critical Editions), San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, →ISBN, page 569:
- As a child, Jane [Eyre] is completely bereft of love, living a loveless existence, which sullies her character. Her emotions are raw and, on the surface, completely out of control.
- (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; […]
sully (plural sullies)
- (rare, obsolete) A blemish.
c. 1599–1602, William Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke: Newly Imprinted and Enlarged to Almost as Much Againe as It Was, According to the True and Perfect Coppie (Second Quarto), London: Printed by I[ames] R[oberts] for N[icholas] L[ing] and are to be sold at his shoppe vnder Saint Dunstons Church in Fleetstreet, published 1604, OCLC 606515358, [Act II, scene i]:
- You laying these ſlight ſallies on my ſonne, / As t'were a thing a little ſoyld with working, […]
1711 December 24, Joseph Addison; Richard Steele, The Spectator, number 256, London: J[acob] and R[ichard] Tonson, OCLC 1026609121; republished in Alexander Chalmers, editor, The Spectator; a New Edition, Carefully Revised, in Six Volumes: With Prefaces Historical and Biographical, volume III, New York, N.Y.: D. Appleton & Company, 1853, OCLC 191120697, page 278:
- After all, it must be confessed, that a noble and triumphant merit often breaks through and dissipates these little spots and sullies in its reputation; but if, by a mistaken pursuit after fame, or through human infirmity any false step be made in the more momentous concerns of life, the whole scheme of ambitious designs is broken and disappointed.
1823 August 9, L. E. L., “Original Poetry. Poetical Catalogue of Pictures. Stothard’s Erato.”, in The Literary Gazette, and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c., number 342, London: Printed by B. Bensley, Bolt Court, Fleet Street; published for the proprietors, at the Literary Gazette Office, Strand; sold also by Bell and Bradfute, Edinburgh; John Cumming, Dublin; and all other booksellers, newsmen, &c., OCLC 276732578, page 507, column 3:
- Roses, ere their crimson breast / Throws aside its green moss vest; / Young hearts, or ere toil, or care, / Or gold, has left a sully there.