Bloody is a British swear word that until recent decades was considered highly offensive. This is a bit strange to most Americans, who do not see it as particularly offensive, and to Australians who use it is a staple of their dialect, sort of an all-purpose adjective. The word was so scandalous that the 1914 London opening of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion will be forever remembered because of the uproar over Eliza Doolittle line “not bloody likely” in the third act. (The 1938 film version of the play was the first British film to use the word.) Like many swear words, the origin is a bit mysterious. No one is certain exactly to what the blood refers.
The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it derives from a reference to the aristocratic rowdies of the Restoration (i.e., those of noble or aristocratic blood). This is supported by early uses as an intensifier, which are in the form bloody drunk. From G. Etherege’s 1676 Man of Mode:
Not without he will promise to be bloody drunk.
And the poet John Dryden wrote in 1684:
The doughty Bullies enter bloody drunk.
Popular derivations include the belief that it comes from the oath God’s Blood or is a corruption of the phrase By our Lady. Alternately, some suggest it is a reference to menstruation. None of these have any real evidence to support them.
Lexicographer Eric Partridge disagreed with all the above, stating, Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, “there is no need for ingenious etymologies: the idea of blood suffices.”
(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th Edition.)
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton