Use ‘bloody’? Not Pygmalion likely!

Posted by on August 30, 2011

The Virtual Linguist wrote an interesting post recently about Pygmalion, focusing on the controversial language in George Bernard Shaw’s much-loved play. The expressions that provoked such consternation almost a century ago seem unremarkable to most modern readers and theatre-goers, yet one of them remains oddly controversial, as we will see.

First there is the relatively innocuous phrase do in, meaning kill, as in to “do someone in”. This remains an informal idiom, unlikely to appear in journalism or official reports except as reported speech. But there’s nothing objectionable about it; we need only note that it’s unsuited to more formal registers. This is the tension Shaw exploited to memorable comedic effect when he used the phrase to show how stirring yet arbitrary are the linguistic distinctions observed in the name of class and social status.

The other word the Virtual Linguist looks at is bloody – not in the physical sense (“the tiger’s bloody claw”) but as a colloquial intensifier, or expletive attributive. She writes that Mrs Patrick Campbell, the actress who first played Eliza Doolittle, “probably risked her career by uttering it”. Eliza’s line (“Walk! Not bloody likely.”) caused a scandal, and the word Pygmalion was used for decades afterwards as a jocular substitute expletive, as in the title of this post.

Bloody retains a peculiar power to bother people. Just a few years ago, its use in a tourism campaign in Australia caused a considerable fuss. Michael Quinion reports on his World Wide Words website that the Australian prime minister couldn’t bring himself to speak the offending line (“So where the bloody hell are you?”) on radio, but that the tourism minister had a markedly different attitude: “It’s the great Australian adjective. We all use it, it’s part of our language.”

Is bloody (or the related bleeding) part of your language? If so, how do you tend to use it? And why do you think it causes such problems?

Comments (8)
  • Stan:
    I have to admit I use the word singly, or in phrases like “not bloody f*****g likely,” but, and this is an anecdotal but, I think it’s use here is reserved to the Northeast and California. I think it’s amusing that Gilbert & Sullivan named their operetta “Ruddigore” to get around the Victorian proscription of “bloody” in polite society (and of course, everoney got the joke, including Miss Grundy).

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 30th August, 2011
  • I use it too, Marc. Not very often, but I’ve resorted to “Bloody hell” on occasion. Despite the word’s provocative status, it’s mild in comparison to many another intensifier. I’ve used much worse!
    As for its geographical usage, a quick search on Lexicalist and SeeTweet suggests that it’s not restricted to the east coast in the U.S., though some of these usages are presumably from people not native to wherever they happen to be.

    Posted by Stan on 31st August, 2011
  • It’s said that a gentleman was asking Gilbert about his new operetta, which he referred to as”Bloodygore”. After enough repetitions, Gilbert said testily “It’s Ruddigore, if you don’t mind.” “It’s the same thing,” mumbled the gentleman. Gilbert snapped: “That’s like saying ‘I like your blooming countenance’ is the same as ‘I like your ruddy cheek.’ Well, it isn’t and I don’t.”

    Posted by John Cowan on 31st August, 2011
  • I have realised that I hardly ever use it any more; perhaps because it seems (to me) so inoffensive that it has lost all power as an expletive.

    Posted by Jamie on 31st August, 2011
  • John: Good anecdote! I imagine the gentleman was suitably chastened. His cheek might even have reddened.

    Jamie: Its force has dimished, for sure, but its sound is still a good fit for certain moments, I think.

    Posted by Stan on 1st September, 2011
  • 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.

    Posted by Adrian (UK) on 9th September, 2011
  • Adrian: It’s funny how that happens. A word with such potential to offend, and a generation or two later it’s as mild as “blooming” to most people. I remember as a young child using the comically tame “Drat” and “Sugar” in situations where stronger terms would have been unacceptable.

    Posted by Stan on 10th September, 2011
  • […] female star, Mrs Patrick Campbell, shocked the nation by swearing on stage, according to the latest MacMillan Dictionary Blog that just dropped into my e-mail inbox as a seemingly synchronous addition to the […]

    Posted by Curse? Not bloody likely! | WORD NERDS on 13th November, 2011
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