When taking the course of English and American literature at the pedagogical university (then institute), we, students, jokingly said that in every Shakespeare’s tragedy or historical play there are “buckets of blood. “ True, the literal use of the word blood or bloody was common in Elizabethan drama, and the phrase “O most bloody sight” (from Julius Caesar, III.2) is one of many Shakespearean similar quotations. Somewhat later, since the 1670s, the word bloody was used in British English as an intensifier with the basic meaning of very. The word enjoyed “respectability “ until about 1750, whereupon it was heavily TABOOED (see my previous blog) for the next two centuries. Why it became profane has never been satisfactorily explained. One theory has associated it with the rowdy behavior of the young bloods of the Restoration period (drunk as a blood); another claims a figurative development, meaning the blood is up (so that bloody drunk would mean ready for a fight). There are etymologies deriving the word from the contraction of the oath by our Lady (biblical reference). The contracted form by’r Lady is common in Shakespeare’s plays, and Jonathan Swift, a century later, writes both it grows b’r Lady cold and it was bloody hot walking today, suggesting that bloody and by’r Lady had become exchangeable intensifiers.

Anyway, the word started being used, more and more, by lower classes as a swear-word, and, probably, this became crucial why it was labeled vulgar in Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755. It should be reminded that Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was normative, i.e. it prescribed, not only registered, the usage of words, so the characteristic vulgar was like a curse that remained with the word for the next 173 years until the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928. Bloody was called a horrid word and printed as b—-y.

On the opening night of Shaw’s Pygmalion in London in April 1914, the actress Patrick Campbell, as Eliza Doolittle, had to say the line Walk! Not bloody likely!, which created public outrage, leading to a fad for using a pseudo-oath Not Pygmalion likely! and euphamistically naming bloody the Shavian adjective, i.e. the adjective planted by George Bernard Shaw into “decent society.”

The word became a major social issue only in Britain. It gained no popularity in America. In Australia it was used as a simple intensifier without pejorative associations so frequently that it was called the “great Australian adjective.” With time, the usage of bloody became more liberalized in the British media too. Before WWII people were still fined for using the word in public, but in 1941 The Times printed it in full (!) in a poem containing the line I really loathe the bloody Hun (a German soldier).

The word’s progress towards respectability has been steady since then, though Prince Charles’ comment in 1989 that English was taught so bloody badly that he had to correct mistakes of his secretaries in documents, received less publicity for WHAT he said than for HOW he said it (the Prince is the guardian of Queen’s English, isn’t he?). The associations of some 200 years die hard, and many people never use the word in public, feel embarrassed if someone does so, and (in Britain) complain to the BBC if they hear it on air before 9 pm.

Regarding my position, as of a non-native English speaker, whether TO USE OR NOT TO USE the word, I’d rather wait for the next fifty years ( 🙂 ) before I start using it in oral or written speech. “You are foreigners who speak English, so make it flat”, my university professor preferred to say.


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