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?