The precise origin of the phrases "bull market" and "bear market" are obscure. The Oxford English Dictionary cites an 1891 use of the term "bull market". In French "bulle spéculative" refers to a speculative market bubble. The Online Etymology Dictionary relates the word "bull" to "inflate, swell", and dates its stock market connotation to 1714.
One hypothetical etymology points to London bearskin "jobbers" (market makers), who would sell bearskins before the bears had actually been caught in contradiction of the proverb ne vendez pas la peau de l'ours avant de l’avoir tué ("don't sell the bearskin before you've killed the bear")—an admonition against over-optimism. By the time of the South Sea Bubble of 1721, the bear was also associated with short selling; jobbers would sell bearskins they did not own in anticipation of falling prices, which would enable them to buy them later for an additional profit.
Another plausible origin is from the word "bulla" which means bill, or contract. When a market is rising, holders of contracts for future delivery of a commodity see the value of their contract increase. However in a falling market, the counterparties—the "bearers" of the commodity to be delivered, win because they have locked in a future delivery price that is higher than the current price.
Some analogies that have been used as mnemonic devices:
- Bull is short for 'bully', in its now mostly obsolete meaning of 'excellent'.
- It relates to the common use of these animals in blood sport, i.e bear-baiting and bull-baiting.
- It refers to the way that the animals attack: a bull attacks upwards with its horns, while a bear swipes downwards with its paws.
- It relates to the speed of the animals: bulls usually charge at very high speed whereas bears normally are thought of as lazy and cautious movers—a misconception because a bear, under the right conditions, can outrun a horse.
- They were originally used in reference to two old merchant banking families, the Barings and the Bulstrodes.
- Bears hibernate, while bulls do not.
- The word "bull" plays off the market's returns being "full" whereas "bear" alludes to the market's returns being "bare".
In describing financial market behavior, the largest group of market participants is often referred to, metaphorically, as a herd. This is especially relevant to participants in bull markets since bulls are herding animals. A bull market is also sometimes described as a bull run. Dow Theory attempts to describe the character of these market movements.International sculpture team Mark and Diane Weisbeck were chosen to re-design Wall Street's Bull Market. Their winning sculpture, the "Bull Market Rocket" was chosen as the modern, 21st century symbol of the up-trending Bull Market.
The term comes from the historically triumphant seasons of the Chicago Bears in the 1920s.