A reader named Stephanie Cerra writes:
I’m a book reviewer for a paid review site, so I read a lot of indie (self-published) novels. I’ve been seeing a lot of “bloody” in the British sense in American novels with American characters–most recently, a book where 10 widely different characters used “bloody” for emphasis. I get the impression that the writers are probably Monty Python/Dr. Who-type Anglophiles who feel it sounds more intelligent, more original, or more genteel than “goddamn” or whatever.
The OED’s relevant definition of bloody: “As an intensifier, modifying an adjective or adverb: absolutely, completely, utterly. More recently also as a mere filler, with little or no intensifying force (although generally implying some element of dislike, frustration, etc., on the part of the speaker).” The dictionary dates this from the seventeenth century, one of the first citation being this stage direction from John Dryden in 1683: “The Doughty Bullies enter Bloody Drunk.”
The OED has quite a lot of observations about the usage of bloody:
This word has long had taboo status, and for many speakers constituted the strongest expletive available. This is reflected in the regularity with which dashes, asterisks, etc., were formerly used to represent the word in print, and in the large number of euphemistic forms to which it has given rise, including bee n.3, bleeding adj. 5, blerry adj., plurry adj., sanguinary adj. 4, and perhaps blooming adj. 4. In the case of the adverb, the considerable public reaction to the utterance of the word on the London stage in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion in 1914 (see quot. 1914 at sense C. 2b) gave rise to the further humorous euphemism Pygmalion adv.
The dictionary is referring to Eliza Doolittle’s line “Walk! Not bloody likely,” which created such a sensation that people started using the word Pygmalion as a substitute for bloody, as in this line of dialogue from the 1967 novel “Rendezvous in Rio”: ” ‘Are you thinking of joining in?’ ‘Not Pygmalion likely,’ Bland returned brusquely.” Anyway, by no later than the mid-1950s, bloody had apparently lost its sting. In writing the book for the musical version of “Pygmalion,” “My Fair Lady,” Alan Jay Lerner didn’t use Shaw’s “Not bloody likely!” As I recently noted, his Liza shocks with another word when she says, “Move yer bloomin’ arse!”
Back to bloody‘s status as an NOOB, the OED says that after originating in the British Isles, the use of the word as an intensifier “spread to most other parts of the English-speaking world, with the notable exception of the United States, where it has apparently only ever achieved limited currency, e.g. among sailors during the 19th cent.”
Is this now changing, as Stephanie suggests? Well, of the thirty most recent uses of bloody at the New York Times’ website, twenty-nine use the word either in its literal sense, that is, having to do with blood, or in a reference to the cocktail the Bloody Mary. The sole exception appeared in a May 15, 2011, blog post in which the author anthropomorphized a spring flower, then self-consciously noted the unusualness of the word in an American paper: “’Relax,’ the tulips tell us. ‘Soon you’ll be complaining how bloody hot it is.’ (If the tulips sound very European, there’s a good reason for that.)”
So no empirical evidence yet. But I have the feeling Stephanie is on to something, and I will be keeping my ears open.