A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of the British slang word "bloody"?

Dear Straight Dope:

Why do the English say "bloody?" What is that in reference to?

When we first got this question, I thought "No problem!" I was sure I already knew the answer, and that it has to do with the blood of Christ, and became a "naughty" word because it was blasphemous. Other, more depraved members of the SDSAB were sure it had to do with menstrual blood.

Turns out we were all wrong. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

"In foul language, a vague epithet expressing anger, resentment, but often a mere intensive, especially with a negative -- as, not a bloody one." They cite an 1840s usage.

On the other hand, the use as adverb dates back to 1650s: as an intensive, meaning, "very" or "and no mistake". In the 1880s, it was considered a "horrid word" by respectable people, on par with obscene or profane language, and was printed in newspapers, etc., as "b----y."

The OED says the origin is uncertain, but possibly refers to "bloods" (aristocratic rowdies) of the late 17th-early 18th centuries ... "bloody drunk" arising from '"drunk as a blood" ... and the association with bloody battle, bloody butcher, etc., "appealed to the imagination of the rough classes." They add, "There is no ground for the notion that 'bloody', offensive as ... it is now to polite ears, contains any profane allusion or has connection with the oath ' 's blood!', referring to the blood of Jesus."

As to how offensive the word actually is, well, that depends on whom you ask, or say it in front of. It's fair to compare it to the "F-word," in that it may cause your mum to faint, but may cause scarcely a raised eyebrow amongst the gang at the pub.

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