Bloody is a commonly used expletive attributive (intensifier) in the United Kingdom and many Commonwealth and ex-Commonwealth countries, including Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, the Anglophone Caribbean, Hong Kong, India, and Pakistan.
Many theories have been put forward for the origin of bloody as a profanity. One theory is that it derives from the phrase by Our Lady, a sacrilegious invocation of the Virgin Mary. The abbreviated form By'r Lady is common in Shakespeare's plays around the turn of the 17th century, and interestingly Jonathan Swift about 100 years later writes both "it grows by'r Lady cold" and "it was bloody hot walking to-day" suggesting that a transition from one to the other could have been under way. In the middle of the 19th century Anne Brontë writes in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: "I went to see him once or twice – nay, twice or thrice – or, by'r lady, some four times" (Chapter XXII).
Others regard this explanation as dubious. Eric Partridge, in Words, Words, Words (Methuen, 1933), describes this as "phonetically implausible". Geoffrey Hughes in Swearing: A social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in English (Blackwell, 1991), points out that "by my lady" is not an adjective whereas bloody is, and suggests that the slang use of the term started with bloody drunk meaning "fired up and ready for a fight".
Another theory is that the offensive use of the word arose during the Wars of the Roses when Royalty and nobility or those "of the blood" (meaning blue-blooded descendants of Charlemagne) wrought death and the most bloody destruction on England. Elizabeth I is also supposed to have used it when referring to her elder sister, Mary, due to her persecution of Protestants.
Another thought is that it simply comes from a reference to blood, a view that Eric Partridge prefers. However, this overlooks the considerable strength of social and religious pressure in past centuries to avoid profanity. This resulted in the appearance or minced-oath appropriation of words that in some cases appear to bear little relation to their source: Crikey for "Christ"; Gee for "Jesus"; Heck for "Hell"; Gosh for "God"; dash, dang or darn for "damn". These, too, might be considered implausible etymologies if looked at only from the point of view of phonetics. Given the context in which it is used, as well as the evidence of Swift's writing, the possibility that bloody is also a minced oath (or more precisely, a slang usage of an otherwise legitimate word masquerading as a minced oath) cannot be lightly dismissed. The suggestion that it originated as a reference to Jesus "bleeding" on the cross is compelling for its shock value, callousness and sacrilegious intent, just as the Irish, and those of the diaspora, will exclaim "suffering Jesus" in response to something shocking.
It has also been surmised that bloody is related to the Dutch bloote, "in the adverbial sense of entire, complete, pure, naked, that we have transformed into bloody, in the consequently absurd phrases of bloody good, bloody bad, bloody thief, bloody angry, &c, where it simply implies completely, entirely, purely, very, truly, and has no relation to either blood or murder, except by corruption of the word."
Another possibility is that the word may just be a contraction of "By the Lord's Day".
Although into the 17th century the word appeared to be relatively innocuous, after about 1750 the word assumed more profane connotations in the UK and British Empire. Various substitutions were devised to convey the essence of the oath, but with less offence; these included bleeding, bleaking, cruddy, smuddy, blinking, blooming, bally, woundy, and ruddy.
On the opening night of George Bernard Shaw's comedy Pygmalion in 1914, Mrs Patrick Campbell, in the role of Eliza Doolittle, created a sensation with the line "Walk! Not bloody likely!" and this led to a fad for using "Pygmalion" itself as a pseudo-oath, as in "Not Pygmalion likely".
The use of bloody in adult UK broadcasting aroused controversy in the 1960s and 1970s but is now unremarkable (for example, in the Harry Potter movies, which are geared towards children, the character Ron says "bloody hell" many times in all the movies).
The term Bloody hell, often pronounced "Bloody 'ell," can mean "Damn it," or be used as a general expression of surprise or as a general intensifier. It is talked about in a limerick about the letter H (aitch):
Letter aitch, in some tongues, you can tell,
Is pronounced not at all, or not well.
By the Brits it is rated
Their second-most hated,
Right after, of course, "bloody ell."
The character Geoffrey Fisher in Keith Waterhouse's play Billy Liar is notable for his continual use of the word 'bloody'. Waterhouse's stage directions make it clear that if this is considered offensive the word should be omitted entirely and not bowdlerised to ruddy or some other word.
Usage outside of the UK
Bloody has always been a very common part of Australian speech and has not been considered profane there for some time. The word was dubbed "the Australian adjective" by The Bulletin on 18 August 1894. One Australian performer, Kevin Bloody Wilson, has even made it his middle name. Also in Australia, the word bloody is frequently used as a verbal hyphen, or infix, correctly called Tmesis as in "fanbloodytastic". In the 1940s an Australian divorce court judge held that "the word bloody is so common in modern parlance that it is not regarded as swearing". Meanwhile, Neville Chamberlain's government was fining Britons for using the word in public.
In March 2006 Australia's national tourism commission launched an advertising campaign targeted at potential visitors in several English-speaking countries. The ad sparked a surprise controversy because of its ending (in which a cheerful, bikini-clad spokeswoman delivers the ad's call-to-action by saying "...so where the bloody hell are you?"). Initially, the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC) required that a modified version of the ad be shown in the United Kingdom, without the word "bloody". However, in May 2006, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that the word bloody was not an inappropriate marketing tool and the original version of the ad was permitted to air.
The word as an expletive is seldom used in North America (except in Canada's Newfoundland and Labrador) and Ontario. In the US the term is usually used when the intention is to mimic an Englishman. Because it is not perceived as profane in American English, "bloody" generally is not censored when used in American television and film. The term however can sometimes be seen in an American movie or TV episode. For example, in Episode One, Series One of 1987 TV series Tour of Duty, an American infantry officer whose outpost is under attack, is seen screaming down the phone, "where the bloody hell are you?", attempting to get air support for a napalm attack. Another example is in the film The Guns of Navarone where a scene with actor Richard Harris uses the word expletively several times. The scene was shot again without the word for British audiences. The term scream bloody murder (meaning to loudly object to something) is also in common use, without any connection with the British usage, and is generally not considered a profanity.
In Singapore, the word bloody is commonly used as a mild expletive in Singapore's colloquial English. The roots of this expletive derives from the influence and informal language British officers used during the dealing and training of soldiers in the Singapore Volunteer Corps and the early days of the Singapore Armed Forces.
When more Singaporeans were promoted officers within the Armed Forces, most new local officers applied similar training methods their former British officers had when they were cadets or trainees themselves. This includes some aspects of British Army lingo, like "bloody (something)".
When the newly elected Singapore government implemented compulsory conscription, all 18 year old able bodied Singapore males had to undergo training within the Armed Forces. When National servicemen completed their service term, some brought the many expletives they picked up during their service into the civilian world and thus became a part of the common culture in the city state. The word 'bloody' also managed to spread to the north in neighbouring Malaysia, to where the influence of Singapore English has spread. The use of 'bloody' as a substitute for more explicit language increased with the popularity of British and Australian films and television shows aired on local television programmes.
The term bloody in Singapore may not be considered explicit, but its usage is frowned upon in formal settings.
Publications such as newspapers, police reports, and so on may print b__y instead of the full profanity. A spoken language equivalent is blankety or, less frequently, blanked or blanky; the spoken words are all variations of blank, which, as a verbal representation of a dash, is used as a euphemism for a variety of bad words.
- "The Journal to Stella, by Jonathan Swift : Letter 24". Etext.library.adelaide.edu.au. 2012-11-12. Retrieved 2013-05-24.
- John Bellenden Ker, An Essay on the Archæology of our Popular Phrases and Nursery Rhymes, London:Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green & Co., 1837, pg 36.
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- "Bloody". World Wide Words. 2006-04-01. Retrieved 2013-05-24.
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- "Idioms Dictionary | Common Idioms and Phrases in English Language | Dictionary.com". Dictionary.reference.com. Retrieved 2013-05-24.
- Oxford English Dictionary.