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Do native English speakers regard this word 'bawl' as an easy word?

I see a lot of 'shout' and 'exclaim' or 'yell' or 'cry out' used.

But 'bawl' is a word that I see when I study an English vocabulary book.

  1. to shout in a very loud voice
  2. to cry loudly

If you are native English speakers, will you regard this word as an easy or difficult one, or easily understood but only used few and far between?

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    It's a common word, and all native English speakers will know what it means.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 19:52
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    It's reasonably common. Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 14:48
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    @MarkMorganLloyd No, holler is “Hillbilly English”; it's extremely regional. Anyway, this is not about literal loud shouting. It's about getting into trouble, and young children getting bawled out is perfectly common in American English. It doesn't sound like official business language, is all. See OED, which says that the reprimanding sense was originally U.S., but has since spread throughout the anglosphere.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 15:58
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    As a native AmE speaker, definition 2 is by far the more common one, and the only one I would ever think to give as a definition of the word. I might understand definition 1, but I would assume it was a figurative use based on definition 2.
    – Hearth
    Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 20:03
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    @Mark I can’t think of a context where the two would be interchangeable. Even in cases where you could use both verbs, their meanings would be quite different: bawling is about being unreasonably loud and unrestrained, screaming like no one can hear you; hollering is about catching someone’s attention. For example, someone working in a diner might ‘holler orders’ to the kitchen (brief shouts out back, loud enough for the kitchen to hear), whereas someone ‘bawling orders’ might be a hated boss screaming in his employees’ faces Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 0:45

6 Answers 6

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This is part of the extension vocabulary: nice to have but not essential for communication. Contrast this with "shout" (which is a very common word) or "yell" (which you would expect a fluent speaker to know).

Bawl is less common. It's not an essential part of one's vocabulary, but you would be surprised if a native speaker was unaware of it. It might not be part of their active vocabulary, but would have a passive understanding of the word.

It's mostly used for poetic emphasis, or in various expressions, often in the -ing form.

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  • "at least passively" modifies what?
    – gomadeng
    Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 6:14
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    It's badly phrased. Active vocabulary is the words you use in your own speech and writing. Passive vocabulary is the words you understand, but don't use. Most native speakers have a passive vocabulary that is much larger then their active vocabulary.
    – James K
    Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 6:28
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    @gomadeng Think of a passive user, someone who reads stuff online but remains quiet in the background. They do not intervene or interact with anyone online. Similarly a non-native speaker may largely understand what they're reading but they experience difficulty in speaking their 2nd language spontaneously vs an active user, which means someone who is active, a user that has a better control and understanding of the site; they will create "content" just as a native speaker will use their language to communicate ideas fluently.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 7:23
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    Certainly kids get bawled out by their parents all the time where I'm from in rural Wisconsin. It sounds exactly like balled out would sound. It's not the literal shouting that's the important sense here, but rather the fact that they're getting scolded. That's why to get yelled at can have a non-literal meaning related to "getting in trouble".
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 15:54
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Bawl easily understood by native speakers but probably isn't used as often as the other words in your example.

Shout, exclaim, yell, and cry allow for more leeway in how they are used.

One can cry with delight, sadness, or pain.

One can shout in anger, joy, or rebellion. Yell follows much the same pattern.

Bawl, however, has a much narrower definition. It almost always means to overtly weep (i.e. have tears flow from your eyes while you sob.)

"Bawl", as a stand-alone verb is not to be confused with the phrasal verb "bawl someone out", which means to angrily yell at someone, usually about something they did wrong.

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    When "my boss bawled me out" they were probably in a highly emotional state such as anger. Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 19:43
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    I'd particularly associate it with babies and small children; as you say it's not something most people do very often.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 12:47
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    iIt can also be applied to the sound that upset cattle make. Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 2:00
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As a native English speaker, I am not especially familiar with the first definition of "bawl" in your question, but would easily understand it in context without a second thought. 'Bawling someone out' tweaks a few neurons. From Google ngram it appears to have peaked in popularity around the time of WW II with a slight resurgence in recent years.

The second definition (to cry loudly) is quite familiar, typically it is used in phrases such as "bawling your eyes out", and is part of my active vocabulary inasmuch as it is necessary to refer to crying.

While I would not call it a "difficult" word, it's a word you can likely do without for quite some time as an English language learner. Sometimes words retreat from general usage into set phrases and are seldom used with that meaning outside of the set phrase.

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  • Your valued opinion is value-laden.
    – gomadeng
    Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 20:26
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    Agree with this. In written British English the word is certainly known, but rarely used. In spoken English even less so.
    – Richard
    Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 10:59
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Collins English Dictionary, which estimates the frequency of every word it lists, thinks bawl is used “rarely,” less than the majority of words.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English says that bawl (in its different forms) is the 20,075th-most-common lemma in English.

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As far as I know (I am both old and a native English speaker) "bawl" is one of those words most people know but don't use very much.

While its meanings are pretty much in line with your definitions, those definitions are much too general.

The most common use is to weep loudly and uncontrollably, as in the phrase, "bawling his eyes out", mostly with respect to children but also to an adult in extreme distress. It is also used in some fiction to describe a character shouting while upset or frightened.

Back in the 50s, the Kingston Trio had a calypso song about a guy who met the grandmother of the girl he was seeing.

"Well the first time she hit me, she knocked me down,

Wouldn't even let me get off the ground.

I try to tell her of the rules of Queensbury,

She says 'Boy, that cuts no light with me.'

(Chorus) "And I bawled (I bawled),

I bawled (I'm sorry).

Oh man you should have heard me bawl.

Oh, never let me near a rolling pin

And that old lady again."

To "bawl someone out" is to reprimand them at length and probably at volume.

Cattle "bawl" when distressed.

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I'm a native speaker of the New Zealand dialect of English, and I'm fluent in Australian (aka 'Strine). I heard, and probably used, the word "bawl" during the 1950s/1960s in the sense "bawling his eyes out" (thanks @WhatRoughBeast), but can't recall hearing it more recently, except in the sense "the boss bawled him out".

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