Oaths and Epithets


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Sooner or later, most likely when you are on the phone to a particularly unhelpful government department and being bounced from on particularly dense clerk to another, you might be tempted to use a red-corpuscle expletive along the lines of – well, let’s skip it, shall we, this is a family newspaper after all.

That’s the time when some linguistic know-all will add to your frustrations by observing: ‘of course, bloody is a contraction of by our lady – surely you know that?

Bloody nonsense is too mild a term for such pseudo-scholarship.

We tend to think of the world as relatively modern, but dean swift was addicted to it 270 years ago. In his journal to Stella, he would write: ‘the weather was bloody hot’ or ‘I have caught a bloody cold.’

In fact, the cold in question was so bad that swift could not go to church, instead of venturing to dine at lord Orkneys – because I could cough and spit there as I pleased.

Bloody was considered harmless in swift’s day, and even in earlier times it had no offensive significance. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare wrote ‘with bloody blameful blade, he broached his boiling bloody breast.’

The ‘by our lady’ assertion is clearly fatuous, as the world derives simply from the ‘violence and viscosity of blood’ as fittingly defined by partridges dictionary of slang.

In 1912, Eliza’s use of it in Pygmalion was considered shocking, but the time my fair lady hit the stage, bloody was deemed passé, so much so that Eliza’s famous curtain line was amended by Lerner and Loewe to ‘move your blooming arse.’

Perhaps the two world wars were the catalyst of bloody’s acceptance in polite society certainly the 1914-18 war removed the word from the taboo index , earning admirable Beatty a place in the oxford dictionary of quotations for observing at the battle of jutland : ‘there’s something wrong with our bloody ships today.’


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