language change and slang Live English

Use ‘bloody’? Not Pygmalion likely!

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?

About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Don’t know how many will see this post so many years later (I at least stumbled on it), but I find the discussion interesting. A high school English teacher (in the 1970s) told us that “bloody” was considered a blasphemous reference to the blood of Christ. I ceased being a Christian years ago, but I continued to avoid its use (except for the occasional “what the bloody hell?” for ironic effect) out of respect for those who might be offended.

    The Wikipedia page for “bloody” has an interesting discussion of the word’s history, including mention of the Pygmalion anecdote. According to this page, when the blasphemous meaning came to be attached to the word, it had already been in use as an intensifier.

  • Thanks for your interesting comment, Jeffrey. Melissa Mohr, in her book Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing, goes into some detail on the historical use and development of bloody as a swear word, which she calls ‘the definitive expletive of the eighteenth century’. That it arose as a corruption of the religious oaths by our lady or God’s blood is an urban legend, according to Mohr. But it’s easy to see why this became a plausible origin story. Rather, she writes:
    ‘Either it derives instead from the adjective bloody as in “covered in blood” or, as the OED proposes, it referred to the habits of aristocratic rabble-rousers at the end of the seventeenth century, who styled themselves “bloods.” “Bloody drunk,” then, would mean “as drunk as a blood.”

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