Susie Dent’s Introduction to Swearing: A Particularly Useful B-Word

It’s not the most forceful piece of cussing, but don’t overlook the power of a good bloody…

susie dent's history of swearing

‘In short, I was drunk; damnably drunk with Ale; great Hogen Mogen bloody Ale: I was porterly drunk.’ Whether or not we’re a hogen mogen (17th-century speak for a grand or powerful person), few of us would fail to recognise the power of ‘bloody’ in these lines from 1699. Taken from John Dryden’s comedy The Wild Gallant, they give us one of the earliest examples of ‘bloody’ used as an intensifier and swear. As we’ll see from the word’s etymology, it is fitting that Dryden links it to the experience of being ‘damnably drunk’. 

Not that the history of ‘bloody’ is entirely straightforward; in fact it has managed to perform several handbrake turns in the space of a relatively short time. It takes us from partying Hooray Henrys to criminal underworlds and on to West-End plays, before eventually conquering the other side of the world, where they love it even more than we do.

It takes us from partying Hooray Henrys to criminal underworlds and on to West-End plays

In its earliest days in Old English, blodeg literally described something that contained blood, a sense it of course retains today. A medical glossary defines dysentery as ‘blodig utsiht’ (bloody outflow), while 800 years later Lord Byron was writing ‘Here, where Murder breathed her bloody steam’.

The probable connection between this literal use and ‘bloody’ as an intensifier – on its way to an expletive – is simply the fear or horror of blood. Most early uses involve something awful that you might recoil from. By 1896, in an article by Rudyard Kipling in McClure’s Magazine, we get the earliest reference to ‘bloody’ the swear: ‘E learns to drop the ‘bloodies’ from every word he slings’.

Lord Byron

How the term made the leap from ickiness to real profanity is therefore not too much of a leap, but that hasn’t stopped us speculating why. It may well be linked to the use of ‘blood’ for a rowdy young aristocrat in the 17th century. The bloods’ heavy drinking sprees were notorious in their day, and the expression ‘as drunk as a blood’ – or bloody drunk – became one of many synonyms for a night on the booze.

The traditional theory, however, proposes something quite different, pointing either at references to the blood of Christ in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, or at a mangling of the phrase ‘by our lady’ and hence one of hundreds of euphemisms for religious blasphemy. Add to the already hazy picture a Bishop of London and notorious pursuer of heretics dubbed ‘Bloody Bonner’ (drunk, it was said, on the scent of fresh blood) and you get a further possible dimension.

…for a while, ‘bloody’ was the strongest expletive of the lot…

The truth may well be an amalgam of many or all of these. Those aristocrats were known as bloods, and ‘bloody’ was used as an insult towards Catholics. Bloody villains – caught ‘red-handed’ – and bishops may have pushed the word further on its way. Then we have our long-standing squeamishness over blood and menstruation. Put all these together and you have a strong cocktail of dislikes, whether or not you include tomato juice.

Want more foul-mouthed indecency? You can find all of Susie Dent’s Introduction to Swearing here!

What is important to recognize is that, for a while, ‘bloody’ was the strongest expletive of the lot. Definitive proof of this came in 1914 when the public rose up in fury at the utterance of the word on the London stage in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, (later dramatized in film as My Fair Lady), which infamously had its main character Eliza Doolittle shout ‘Walk? Not bloody likely!’.

So great were the sensationalist ripples from the play that ‘Pygmalion’ itself joined the list of euphemisms for the word that was by now routinely written with dashes and asterisks. It is said that when a reporter from the Daily Express interviewed a true Cockney flower girl, he was told that Shaw’s dialogue was entirely unrealistic: neither she her fellow flower-sellers would never have used such a filthy word.


In fact it’s fair to day that no other word had caused such public offence – and no other one would, at least not until 1964, when the critic Kenneth Tynan decided to use ‘fuck’ on live TV.

What a difference a few decades make. Unusually for a lexicon that has proved remarkably enduring for centuries, ‘bloody’ has almost entirely lost its sting. Few if any of us would raise an eyebrow at a liberal sprinkling of the word these days. It has become a quaint, homely, perfectly-acceptable-in-front-of-kids sort of swear (proven by the fact that the child actors in Harry Potter happily use ‘bloody hell’ without flinching).

Much of this is thanks to the Australians, who use it with such regularity and in almost every part of speech that, like the fillers ‘literally’, and ‘like’ for us, it’s nearly lost all meaning. It has been called the Australian adjective since at least 1894. 

Speaking of which, the bloody objectors made one last chance to stifle the swear back in 2006, when an attempt was made stop an Australian Tourism advert featuring a cheerful, bikini-clad woman asking “…so where the bloody hell are you?”. The advertising standards agency resisted, agreed on abso-bloody-lutely, and allowed it to run pre-watershed.

Indeed perhaps this last use, as an infix popped into the middle of a word to add emphasis and humour, represents ‘bloody’ at its best. It may have lost its standing in the swearing stakes, but it can still be fanbloodytastic when it needs to be.


  • robjb18785854 says:

    One of my all time favourite words, so versatile, like the Basil of the swear world.

  • kateflood1 says:

    Thank you Susie, bloody fascinating as per 🙂

  • shrdlu.junction8607 says:

    The word features in the 1965 film “They’re a Weird Mob” about an Italian migrant’s new life in Sydney, Australia. In one scene he asks a policeman, How do I get to Kings-Bloody-Cross?” The policeman is NOT amused!!

  • jcownie5286 says:

    In fact it’s fair to day that no other
    In fact it’s fair to say that no other

  • Avatar of jack jack says:

    Great article Susie!

  • klafex says:

    Since, here in the States, “bloody” is seldom heard, I’m surprised by how offensive it is perceived to be. I’m reminded a scene the 1960’s movie, “To Sir With Love” in which a student is making noise struggling with her desk is asked to stop by the teacher, played by Sidney Poitier.
    “It’s the bleedin’ desk!” she barks back.
    “Do you talk to your father that way?”
    “You’re not my bleedin’ father.”
    He most definitely was offended by the exchange but I didn’t realize until now, why?
    Thank you, Susie.

  • johnnydee says:

    “neither she her fellow flower-sellers would never have used such a filthy word.?”??

    Surely, “neither she *nor* her fellow flower-sellers would n*ever* have used such a filthy word.

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