“Bloody”

A reader named Stephanie Cerra writes:

I’m a book reviewer for a paid review site, so I read a lot of indie (self-published) novels. I’ve been seeing a lot of “bloody” in the British sense in American novels with American characters–most recently, a book where 10 widely different characters used “bloody” for emphasis. I get the impression that the writers are probably Monty Python/Dr. Who-type Anglophiles who feel it sounds more intelligent, more original, or more genteel than “goddamn” or whatever.

The OED’s relevant definition of bloody: “As an intensifier, modifying an adjective or adverb: absolutely, completely, utterly. More recently also as a mere filler, with little or no intensifying force (although generally implying some element of dislike, frustration, etc., on the part of the speaker).” The dictionary dates this from the seventeenth century, one of the first citation being this stage direction from John Dryden in 1683: “The Doughty Bullies enter Bloody Drunk.”

The OED has quite a lot of observations about the usage of bloody:

This word has long had taboo status, and for many speakers constituted the strongest expletive available. This is reflected in the regularity with which dashes, asterisks, etc., were formerly used to represent the word in print, and in the large number of euphemistic forms to which it has given rise, including bee n.3, bleeding adj. 5, blerry adj., plurry adj., sanguinary adj. 4, and perhaps blooming adj. 4. In the case of the adverb, the considerable public reaction to the utterance of the word on the London stage in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion in 1914 (see quot. 1914 at sense C. 2b) gave rise to the further humorous euphemism Pygmalion adv.

The dictionary is referring to Eliza Doolittle’s line “Walk! Not bloody likely,” which created such a sensation that people started using the word Pygmalion as a substitute for bloody, as in this line of dialogue from the 1967 novel “Rendezvous in Rio”:  ” ‘Are you thinking of joining in?’ ‘Not Pygmalion likely,’ Bland returned brusquely.” Anyway, by no later than the mid-1950s, bloody had apparently lost its sting. In writing the book for the musical version of “Pygmalion,” “My Fair Lady,” Alan Jay Lerner didn’t use Shaw’s “Not bloody likely!” As I recently noted, his Liza shocks with another word when she says, “Move yer bloomin’ arse!”

Back to bloody‘s status as an NOOB, the OED says that after originating in the British Isles,  the use of the word as an intensifier “spread to most other parts of the English-speaking world, with the notable exception of the United States, where it has apparently only ever achieved limited currency, e.g. among sailors during the 19th cent.”

Is this now changing, as Stephanie suggests? Well, of the thirty most recent uses of bloody at the New York Times’ website, twenty-nine use the word either in its literal sense, that is, having to do with blood, or in a reference to the cocktail the Bloody Mary. The sole exception appeared in a May 15, 2011, blog post in which the author anthropomorphized a spring flower, then self-consciously noted the unusualness of the word in an American paper: “’Relax,’ the tulips tell us. ‘Soon you’ll be complaining how bloody hot it is.’ (If the tulips sound very European, there’s a good reason for that.)”

So no empirical evidence yet. But I have the feeling Stephanie is on to something, and I will be keeping my ears open.

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27 responses to ““Bloody”

  1. Well, it sure does beat the ubiquitous and unimaginative F-word!

  2. I grew up in eastern Massachusetts with my mum (yes, mum or ma; & when we were smaller, alternately: mummah) saying “bloody” a lot. My dad would say it occasionally too. So: I do as well. Both my parents are US-born; their parents also US-born. One of my mother’s grandfathers was “plastic irish” born in London and immigrated to the US when he was 20yo. One of my dad’s grandmothers was from Wales. but that as close as they’ve gotten to the UK in their lifetimes.

    I acknowledge there is a difference between media, and the frequency you are tracking in mainstream america, & some regional U.S. and/or familial usage. I came only came realize “bloody” as chiefly British since I’ve gotten older but when I was a kid, I wasn’t aware.

    • “plastic irish”???

      Reminds me of the sixties and seventies when the large Irish minority in north-west London who intensified their inherited Gaelicity were referred to by the rest of us “Palstic Paddies”!!! Happy Days!

      I always thought bloody was a contracted version of “by Our Lady” rather than “blood of Christ”. Phonetically sounds far more likely to my ear.

  3. I have heard it used occasionally in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where one can also find a pasty of the Cornish variety. Presumably, this is an ethnic holdover there rather than a recent import.

  4. Does the OED mention that “bloody” is a sacrilegious reference to the “blood of Christ”? I’ve even heard preachers use it, probably not realizing that they were blaspheming from the pulpit!

    • The OED is dubious on this. Quoth it: “It has been suggested that this usage derives from oaths referring to the blood of Christ (compare Christ’s blood!, God’s blood! at blood n. 6, ‘Sblood n.), although this seems unlikely given firstly that none of these interjections is recorded in intensive use themselves, and secondly that a functional shift from interjection to intensifier would be highly unusual. (Although compare woundy adv., woundy adj.2) Similar difficulties are encountered by the suggestion that bloody shows either a reduced form of, or a euphemistic alteration of, byrlady int. (see quot. 1711 at waistcoat n. 1b for an example that is often said to show this, but apparently without any early textual authority).”

  5. My parents, born in London, England, said “bleddy”. Not sure if that was just how it sounded to a child or whether they said that so I wouldn’t learn to use “bloody”. Bloody awful idea.

  6. I use it all the bloody time, but then I also read the New Yorker, spent most of my career in journalism, reside in the dreaded Northeast, home of the bloody “elite,” and majored in English. A lost soul, to be sure. By the way, Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta, “Ruddigore” was so-named to avoid outraging the refined sensibilities of those oh-so-proper Victorians.

  7. by no later than the mid-1950s, bloody had apparently lost its sting.

    Hmmm – searching for proof would take far more time than I have right now, but my recollection is that “bloody” would still have been written “b—-y” in the public prints in the UK into the 1970s, if not later, suggesting its sting continued …

    • Interesting. I wonder why Lerner didn’t use it in “My Fair Lady.”

      • Again, I haven’t seen it on stage, but if, as Martyn says, it was still not spelled out fully in some contexts going into the 1970s, using “bloody” instead of “bloomin'” in the 1964 film may have slipped the film’s rating from a G to a PG. (Just guessing.)

  8. In think you have to be careful about the “lost its sting” thing. Depends. In my family “bloody” was not allowed in the 50s and 60s, but then nor was ruddy or bloomin’ or damn or any swear word more powerful than “Oh dear!” And I wouldn’t have used the word “bloody” in front of my father at any time, and he didn’t depart this place until into the 21st century.

  9. I just spotted two uses of the word “bloody” used as an expletive rather than an adjective halfway through the first episode of The Twilight Zone, from 1959. Double-checked at imdb and it lists writer as Rod Serling. What happened there?

  10. Regional pronunciations:

    London: bladdy

    Wales: bleddy

    Yorkshire/Lancashire/East midlands: bloody ( to rhyme with fool)

    Some areas: bluddy

    NE England: bliddy

    Use in polite company was unacceptable before the late 60’s. A number of comedy classic TV series pushed the boundary (Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, Monty Python) and it is not now seen as a strong word.

  11. Does nobody else remember the 1969 documentary about a feminist debate in New York called Town Bloody Hall?

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0217853/

    As one of the participants was Germaine Greer who was an Australian based in England it may well be a direct quote from her.

    However clearly the film makers thought that there was nothing at all strange in dropping in a bloody as an intensifier in what is an American film.

    A common-ish English usage now is to interpolate it into the name of someone you’ve heard way too much about recently or just generally dislike – e.g.’Boris Bloody Johnson’.

    Other variants of this usage would substitute bleeding (a very common alternative to bloody when it was still considered swearing) or fucking.

  12. “Bloody” may well have lost its sting but I still wouldn’t say it in front of my parents; there’s still a slight taboo about it, even if I freely use it in other circumstances!

  13. Little Black Sambo has the right of it. (I was actually given a copy of that book as a child!) It comes from By Our Lady and may have been condensed post Reformation when references to the Virgin Mary could have marked you out.

    In the early 60s my mother once washed my mouth out with soap (pink Lifebuoy – I will never forget) for dropping ‘bloody’ into a conversation. I was probably about 11 or 12.

    It has just about lost its ability to shock now.

    There is a famous cartoon from the magazine Punch. They used to have a competition to re-write the tag to a very old cartoon. The drawing is of a lady in Victorian dress and bonnet talking to a man over what was either a desk or a typesetter’s table. “Well, Miss Austen, we’ll have to lose all the effing and blinding………”

  14. Richard Charlton-Taylor

    I think Little Black Sambo(I also had a copy of the book as a child) and Dido are right.I have always believed it came from By Our Lady.’Blimey’ or ‘cor blimey’ (watch any British WW2 film from the 1940’s 50’s and 60’s).This expression of surprise comes from God blind me.

  15. “by no later than the mid-1950s, bloody had apparently lost its sting”. Nonsense, when I was a child (born 1982), “bloody” was always considered a swear word, even now it’s something adults use with other adults. You heard it on tv in the evening, never the daytime. These days you do hear it more liberally, but more in private, and not in front of children! If you use it as a child, expect to get chastised in some way (maybe just “told off”).

  16. I can remember getting slapped by my grandma for using it in front of her in the late 60’s/early 70’s. Twasn’t the done thing at all.

  17. “Bloody” is often used by Americans who are unaware of how intense/taboo it still is in Britain. In the UK, “bloody” still packs a punch if used in polite situations. Americans naively suppose it is on a par, in intensity, with, say, “darned” or “no-good”, and are shocked to find that its intensity in the UK is somewhere between “goddamned” and “fucking” (adj). We had a recent TV advert in the USA which made me cringe: It was selling cookies (biscuits) and a British actress (Elizabeth from KEEPING UP APPEARANCES) exclaimed, “It’s a bloody good cookie!” I’m sure most Americans weren’t fazed by this at all, and found it quaintly amusing; but it sounded ghastly to my ears, having lived in South Africa and England.

  18. If it has become a NOOB, I would hazard a guess that a major factor in this might be its repeated use in the Harry Potter films. Ron Weasley frequently uses it, although I think this is usually in the exclamatory phrase “bloody hell!”, rather than as an adjective. Like several other British posters, I was punished for using this word as a child (early 70s), and although it has certainly become less taboo, I was still surprised to see it being used so liberally in films that are supposedly family viewing. I probably wouldn’t punish my teenage son for using it, but I would probably tell him not to do so in front of his grandparents.

  19. My dad has always said “bloody” don’t know where he got it.. I’m Canadian.

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