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Bloody

“So where the bloody hell are you?” is the punchline of a print and television advertising campaign launched by Tourism Australia last month. It features Australians relaxing in beautiful settings, with lines like “We’ve poured you a beer”, “We’ve got the sharks out of the pool”, and “We’ve saved you a spot on the beach”, ending with a nubile bikini-clad blonde uttering the line.

You might not believe, let alone understand, all the fuss this has caused. Critics within Australia argued that the line is crude and will remind people of the outdated boorish and aggressive image of the Australia of previous decades. And prime minister John Howard couldn’t bring himself to utter the slogan when asked to do so by an Australian radio interviewer. The kerfuffle would have remained confined to Australia had not the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC) banned it from television screens in the UK.

Americans might guess the offensive word is hell, which is still an expletive with some force in that country. But no, it’s bloody that’s causing all the spluttering and high blood pressure, a word that Americans have never much used, but which Australians took to their hearts well over a century ago. The tourism minister, Fran Bailey, argues that it isn’t at all offensive. “It’s the great Australian adjective. We all use it, it’s part of our language.” That’s largely true for Australia, but not for Britain.

What we’re seeing here is a vestige of a British attitude to the word which is ancient but hard to explain. From about 1750 bloody became taboo in polite society. In an entry published in 1887 in what was then still called the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, James Murray noted that it was “now constantly in the mouths of the lowest classes, but by respectable people considered ‘a horrid word’, on a par with obscene or profane language”. In 1880, John Ruskin commented that “[t]he use of the word ‘bloody’ in modern low English is a deeper corruption, not altering the form of the word, but defiling the thought of it.” British police reports of the time usually wrote it as “b----y”, a practice that continued well into the twentieth century.

George Bernard Shaw caused a sensation when his play Pygmalion was first performed in London in 1914. He had the flower girl Eliza Doolittle flounce out in Act III with the words, “Walk! Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi”. The line created an enormous fuss, with people going to the play just to hear the forbidden word, and led to the jocular euphemism not Pygmalion likely, which survived into the 1970s.

It’s hard to explain why the word had such shock value, though it is likely that people mistakenly believed it derived from old oaths like Christ’s blood, by God’s blood, or by our lady, in reference to the Virgin Mary. The real origin, still in doubt, may be traceable back to the aristocratic rowdies, the bloods, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The word lost much of its force during the last century, especially after World War II. When Alan Jay Lerner wrote the musical My Fair Lady, based on Shaw’s play, he felt bloody was too weak to make the point to American audiences about Eliza’s low-class origins breaking through under stress. In the Ascot scene, which isn’t in the play, he has Eliza urge on her horse with “Move your blooming arse!” I remember hearing gasps from members of the audience at this extremely rude word arse when I saw the film in Britain on its release in 1964. That euphemistic blooming was rather sweet; bloody turns up a couple of times elsewhere in the film, but perhaps Lerner felt that “Move your bloody arse!” would be pitching it too strong even for his more tolerant times.

The response to the BACC ban has been uniformly mocking. Australian papers, as you might expect, saw this as a case of stuffed-shirt hypocritical Pommie attitudes. “This from the country,” wrote the Sydney Daily Telegraph, “that gave the world such marvellously tasteful TV fare as Benny Hill, the Carry On genre, Little Britain, Ali G and so on.” Australian Andrew Mueller wrote in the Guardian on 18 March, “One supposes that it’s quite difficult to end up with a job on a regulatory body like the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre unless one is, at heart, a humourless, purse-lipped, lemon-sucking wowser — what other sort of person seeks to appoint themselves a guardian of public morality?” After protests from Fran Bailey, the Centre has agreed to review its decision.

The controversy is wonderful publicity for Tourism Australia, of course, though compared with the Australian press the British media have hardly noticed the spat. It shows the word still has some force, confirming the comment in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage about British usage that “[i]t probably still offends more delicate sensibilities”. But there are so few of these to be found these days that the ban makes little sense.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 Apr. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 1 April 2006.