The word was in use in the 19th century and probably earlier, meaning 'white', when referring to buffalo. An 1840 book noted that people preferred 'bulei' (white) buffalo to 'hitam' (which is the current Indonesian word for black).
An 1869 Malay-Dutch dictionary notes the words 'balar', 'sabun' and 'andan' as referring to 'white people' (wit mensch) and 'albinos'. An 1894 Malay-English dictionary noted the words 'andan' and 'bulei' as referring to albinos, and 'sabun' (a word in current usage as soap) as an adjective for all-white dogs, and for albinos. The word 'balar' is given as an adjective meaning white in the context of buffalos, and also albinos.
A 1948 Javanese Indonesian dictionary notes boelé, balar and boelai as a suffix to the Javanese 'wong' or 'person', in Indonesian 'orang balar' or 'orang saboen'.
Subsequent dictionaries may define 'bule' simply as albino. However, in current usage the English loanword, albino is more commonly used.
In spoken form, the word may be used by street vendors to attract tourists or foreigners' attention. Because some westerners find the word insulting, more cautious street vendors use the term Mister, which foreigners find more polite. As an alternative to 'bule', the adjective 'barat' (Western) may be an alternative. Compare with güero.
As a word for foreigner, the term can have pejorative intent, and some resident Europeans find it stereotypical and offensive. Others have embraced the term, as with 'bule gila', (crazy bule), shortened to 'bugil' (the Indonesian for nude). The term 'bugil' is used by a minority of Caucasians in Indonesia who like to be perceived as eccentric.
- Pembatjaan jang gampang: goena anak-anak midras. 1840. p. 18.
- Supplement op het maleisch-nederduitsch woordenboek. Endschedé en Zonen. 1869. p. 125.
- Sir Hugh Charles Clifford; Sir Frank Athelstane Swettenham (1894). A Dictionary of the Malay Language. authors at the Government's printing Office.
- W. J. S. Poerwadarminta (1948). Baoesastra Djawi-Indonesia. Balé Poestaka.
- "Don't Call Me Bule!: How expatriates experience a word - Living in Indonesia, A Site for Expatriates". www.expat.or.id. Retrieved February 13, 2019.