How Dirty was ‘Bloody?’

PygmalionWhen I was in elementary school, a teacher informed me that “in England, ‘bloody‘ is a dirty word.” Even at eight years old, this sounded like an exaggeration, the linguistic equivalent of those stuffy Victorians who were shocked by ankles. How could such an innocuous word be a forbidden expletive?

I’ve never gotten a clear answer. As ‘bloody’ is used frequently in the Harry Potter books, it’s clear that the word’s shock value is mostly a thing of the past. But was the offense ever really that bad?

George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion famously horrified audiences with the line “Not bloody likely.” (Although to be fair, I’ve never actually read any substantive proof of this outrage). Many things are less horrifying now, of course, than they were in 1914. Nevertheless, Michael Quinion, of World Wide Words, implicitly suggests it may have packed some residual punch in the late 20th-Century:

George Bernard Shaw caused a sensation when his play Pygmalion was first performed in London in 1914. He had the flower girl Eliza Doolittle flounce out in Act III with the words, “Walk! Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi”. The line created an enormous fuss, with people going to the play just to hear the forbidden word, and led to the jocular euphemism not Pygmalion likely, which survived into the 1970s.

Quinion also brings up a controversy in Australia over tourist ads featuring the phrase ‘So where the bloody hell are you?’ (Former PM John Howard apparently took much offense.) But I would argue that the furor hardly centered on ‘bloody’ in and of itself. The question has a rather aggressive tenor that isn’t the most inviting. I doubt you would get any less of a reaction if the slogan were ‘Come on, people! Why won’t you visit already??”

Obviously, It’s difficult to say when profanities become more or less taboo. When did ‘bloody’ become innocuous enough to be uttered by the boy wizard?

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About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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21 Responses to How Dirty was ‘Bloody?’

  1. Nick says:

    I wouldn’t have said “dirty” (as it’s neither excretory nor sexual) but it’s clearly a swear word in Australia. It’s probably the mildest, somewhere down around the same level of offensiveness as “crap”. It’s widely enough recognised as off-limits that children will occasionally find excuses to use it literally, cf. Bart Simpson recounting his Sunday School lesson on hell.
    Of course you’re right about the slightly aggressive tone of that tourism ad but I would maintain that the worry was mainly about the word “bloody”.
    It’s also worth noting that it’s not being used as much in Australia as it used to be, apart from the fixed “bloody hell”. I remember a few people commenting that the 2002 film Dirty Deeds tried to evoke Australia in the 60s with criminals using lots of “bloodys” rather than the wider range of swear words that you would hear today.

  2. Amy Stoller says:

    With a quick web search, you’ll find that “bloody” was indeed considered vulgar and shocking in the extreme, and that its use in Pygmalion was considered a possible career-ender for Mrs Patrick Campbell, the first Liza Dolittle.

    Shaw did try to prepare the audience, in a way – with this passage in Act I:

    HIGGINS [sternly] Of course. I’m always particular about what I say. Why do you say this to me? 160
    MRS. PEARCE [unmoved] No, sir: youre not at all particular when youve mislaid anything or when you get a little impatient. Now it doesnt matter before me: I’m used to it. But you really must not swear before the girl.
    HIGGINS [indignantly] I swear! [Most emphatically] I never swear. I detest the habit. What the devil do you mean?
    MRS. PEARCE [stolidly] Thats what I mean, sir. You swear a great deal too much. I dont mind your damning and blasting, and what the devil and where the devil and who the devil—
    HIGGINS. Mrs. Pearce: this language from your lips! Really!
    MRS. PEARCE [not to be put off]—but there is a certain word I must ask you not to use. The girl has just used it herself because the bath was too hot. It begins with the same letter as bath. She knows no better: she learnt it at her mother’s knee. But she must not hear it from your lips. 165
    HIGGINS [loftily] I cannot charge myself with having ever uttered it, Mrs. Pearce. [She looks at him steadfastly. He adds, hiding an uneasy conscience with a judicial air] Except perhaps in a moment of extreme and justifiable excitement.
    MRS. PEARCE. Only this morning, sir, you applied it to your boots, to the butter, and to the brown bread.
    HIGGINS. Oh, that! Mere alliteration, Mrs. Pearce, natural to a poet.

    Incidentally, I once read (I wish I could recall where exactly) that Shaw could have done better in reproducing Cockney dialect: “Not bloody likely” should have been (according to whoever it was I read) “No bleeding fear.” I wonder if that’s true!

    • trawicks says:

      Interestingly, though, it seems there was some debate about the word’s offensiveness even in 1914. This was Shaw’s retort in The Daily News:

      I have nothing particular to say about Eliza Doolittle’s language…. I do not know anything more ridiculous than the refusal of some newspapers (at several pages’ length) to print the word “bloody,” which is in common use as an expletive by four-fifths of the British nation, including many highly-educated persons.

      The only report I’ve found of how the opening audience actually reacted to the line was that they found more hysterically funny than offensive. So was it a true scandal or more along the lines of tabloid exaggeration?

      • Amy Stoller says:

        So we’re back to which sources we’ve found – not an unusual state of affairs! I do think the word was avoided in “polite company ” – or at least, the definition of such in some circles.

        “Bloody” was in general use around my American home from the 1960s on. But the first time I ever heard my father use the f-word I was genuinely shocked, and I was at least in my 20s at the time – possibly in my 30s. And to be honest, though I myself use the word freely much of the time, I am still offended when I hear it (for example) bandied about in stores by the staff, along with other “rude” words. And I am careful to avoid its use myself in a variety of circumstances.

        There’s a time and place for everything – or at least, such was the case when I was young, and that programming has stuck with me to this day.

        • Amy Stoller says:

          I meant to add that both points of view (shocking, not shocking but amusing) could have been true at the same time.

          Here are a couple of things bits I’ve found on the side (sort of) of shocking.

          http://www.scribd.com/doc/48238572/An-Introduction-to-George-Bernard-Shaw-Pygmalion
          “He carried on a passionatecorrespondence over the years with Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a widow and actress, who got the starring role in PYGMALION. All the other actresses refused to say the taboo word ‘bloody’ that the playwright had put in the mouth of Eliza.”