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?


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.

          “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.”

          “As is so often the case, success was accompanied by controversy, especially regarding Eliza’s use of the word bloody. Such outrageously offensive language had never before been uttered in a performance at His Majesty’s Theatre. Newspapers seized upon the information, and tickets for the premiere sold quickly. Even though they knew what to expect, the audience gasped in unison when the lead actress delivered the line, “Not bloody likely!” (Pygmalion, p. 55). A stunned silence and waves of uproarious laughter followed, and the performance ground to a halt briefly. The next day’s theater headlines talked of little else: “BERNARD SHAW’S BOLD BAD WORD SPOKEN … SENSATION AT HIS MAJESTY’S … PROTEST BY DECENCY LEAGUE … I SEE NO OBJECTION SAYS PRIME MINISTER” (Berst p. 18).

          [So here we see both shock and laughter. Some of the laughter may have been more shocked than amused, though I don’t doubt the amusement of some, maybe most. The PM’s response is interesting, though, as is the fact that the Censor did not ban performances. — AS]

          One newspaper, the Daily Express, had sent a Charing Cross flower girl named Eliza to review the show:

          I never thought I should be so conspic- conspic-well, yer knows wot I mean! … It was all rite, though, wen the curten went up. I reely enjoyed myself then, and wen I ‘eard the langwidge, it was quite home-like. I never thought as ‘ow they allowed sich langwidge on the stige.… I thought it was funny when she got into the taxi wiv her basket. Of course, flower-girls don’t make a habit of getting into taxis, but you know, when you’ve had a good day, you feels sporty. I didn’t like the last bit when Eliza’s supposed to fall in love with the Prof. He wanted her to go back to him, yet he didn’t say he loved her. It wasn’t one thing or another. (Berst, p. 19)”

  3. Jan Freeman says:

    I wrote a column about “bloody” when the British ad board refused (at first, anyway) to run the Australia spots, in 2006. Excerpt:

    The British advertising board defended its ban on bloody with a survey that showed — as they spun it — that 70 percent of interviewees thought the word was “mildly, fairly, or severely offensive.” But the Australians responded with counterspin: If you group the responses differently, they noted, you get 85 percent saying bloody is either “mildly” or not at all offensive. And when it came to broadcast guidelines, bloody was the tamest word on the list: Only 5 percent of people who called it a swear word thought it should “never” be heard on TV.

    Given that reality — and the fact that Foster’s beer (in the ’80s) and Toyota (in the ’90s) were allowed to use the word in TV ads-the advertising board has agreed to reconsider the ban. By the time you read this, British TV may be running the original version, “bloody hell” and all. And anyone who doesn’t like it can go to buttoned-up Singapore , where the ad tagline has been red-penciled to a demure “So where are you?”

    Two years later, I blogged (at the Boston Globe) about another “bloody” ban, quoting the Guardian:

    “A cheeky ad by the Sun gloating about Britain winning more medals than Australia at the Beijing Olympics, using a twist on Australia ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’
    tourism, has been banned by the advertising regulator.

    “Rupert Murdoch’s News Group argued that the ad was a ‘light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, and gentle ribbing’ of Australia. The ad featured as a giant billboard on a truck comparing Britain’s 19 Beijing gold medals alongside Australia’s 14 with the strapline ‘Where the bloody hell were you?’ ”

    The British Advertising Standards Authority, however, said bloody was a swear word, not to be blazoned on buses for children to read.

    So that’s how “dirty” it was a few years ago; maybe not very, but too vulgar for that kind of display.

    Hope this helps!

  4. Stan says:

    When I wrote briefly about bloody at Macmillan Dictionary Blog last year, a commenter from the UK said:

    When I was a kid (1970′s) “bloody” still had plenty of force and adults would scold you for saying it. These days you hear schoolkids using the F word all the time and bloody has almost been consigned to the bin.

    (BTW: You want ‘become’, not ‘because’, in the last line.)

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks, Stan! That suggests that the chronology resembles the decline in offensiveness of ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ in the United States. I was scolded for using them as a child in the 1980’s, but both have, IMO, lost much of their force within the past 30 years.

      • Stan says:

        I wonder how much of that decline we should attribute to the Heston factor (1968–)!

        • trawicks says:

          What’s funny about that is that ‘god damn’ was frequently censored from American television until quite recently, while ‘damn’ was not. I’m not quite sure why the more explicitly religious form of damnation was so much more offensive. Maybe I just answered my own question …

  5. Simon Gilman says:

    I’m English, born 1960, and for many years “bloody” was indeed a shocking term, at least in the environments I where I was raised. My Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang rejects etymologies to do with theology, such as a reduction of “By Our Lady”, “By’rlady”, but points out, as I was going to anyway, that its usage in Australia was and is so prevalent that the strength of it to offend has just faded away. Just as the word “damned” was euphemised to “dashed” in England, so we find that “bloody” became “blooming”, especially in Cockney/London, such as “you blooming idiot”.

    I met the grandmother of my wife-to-be at the end of the 1990s, and we all went down to the pub for lunch. Having had a few the night before, I ordered that well-known restorative, a “Bloody Mary” (vodka and tomato juice). My fiancée’s nanna was nearly 80, and provincial enough not to have heard the name for that particular drink, and was rather taken aback. Of course, it didn’t much help that her name was Mary, too.

  6. boynamedsue says:

    Bloody would still get me a slap in the late ’80s, though it wasn’t a word my parents took massive care to avoid in front of me, unlike the f-word.

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  8. Robert N. says:

    I find it hard to believe that in 1914 ‘bloody’ was considering a shocking profanity!
    By contrast, my mother uses it all the time nowadays!

    • Montmorency says:

      …whereas I still wouldn’t say it in front of my mother 🙂

      Yes, it was still a bit shocking (though never “dirty”) when I was a child and teenager in England in the 1950s and early 1960s, although everything changed during the 1960s of course.

      It could often be used with comic effect (especially if with, say, a Cockney accent used or affected), e.g. the famous Peter Cook and Dudley Moore “Pete ‘n’ Dud” sketches of the 1960s, and in broad comedy like the “Carry On” films.

      In the 1950s, if one child used it in the playground and was told off by another, sometimes they would come out with the doggerel:

      “Bloody in the Bible
      Bloody in the book
      If you bloody don’t believe me
      ‘ave a bloody look!”

      …which I suppose could still be shocking to some.

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  11. Ngamudgi says:

    The word was considered very offensive in Australia until at least the 1970s. At the same time, it has always been very widely used.

    In 1966 a US band, the Royal Guardsmen, brought out a song called “Snoopy and the Red Baron” which used the word in the lyrics. The official censors ruled that it had to be beeped out if played on the radio. You would hear “the *BEEP* Red Baron of Germany*”. I remember a lot of debate about it at the time, but the censors won. It wasn’t censored on the record if you bought it, but it caused outrage amongst older members of the family if played in their hearing.

    This attitude in Australia goes back a very long time.

    In 1948 a man appealed against an offensive behaviour and indecent language conviction (and fines) for using the word. He argued that using the word may be “rude” but was not “offensive behaviour”. When he won the appeal on those grounds, it was reported as news around Australia. However, the indencent language conviction was upheld.

    In 19th century Australian writing, you will find various hints at the word, which was in widespread use amongst common folk but couldn’t be published. For instance, in Henry Lawson’s short story “The Loaded Dog”, a publican insults Dave and calls him a “crimson fool”. Every Australian reader knows he means Dave had been called a “… fool”, but if Lawson had written that the story could not have been published.

    Incidentally, Henry Lawson has a place in Australian history and literature roughly equivalent to Mark Twain in America and “The Loaded Dog” is one of his best stories. Here is a link to actor Jack Thompson reading the part of “The Loaded Dog” where Dave is called a “crimson fool”:

  12. Red says:

    I’m a little late to this post, but I’m suprised no one has brought up this possibility yet.

    I tended to assume that, in addition to the plainly visceral image of the sight of blood, the word may have been some sort of reference to Bloody Mary, Queen of Scots, after whom, I believe, the cocktail was named as well.

    For what it’s worth, I live in the US.

    • Ngamudgi says:

      Actually, that nickname belonged to Mary Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII. Queen Mary I was a Catholic and wanted England to turn away from protestantism. To that end, she executed many “heretics”. It was her successor and half-sister Queen Elizabeth I (a protestant) who executed Mary Queen of Scots (a Catholic). It cut both ways, so to speak.

      That doesn’t detract from your theory of course.

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