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

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.

Pygmalion

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.


7 Comments

  • 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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