The pragmatics of “bloody”: an historical account


Stefania Biscetti (Siena)


This paper outlines the diachronic development of the intensifier bloody, whose syntactic, semantic and pragmatic properties mark it as an atypical member of its category.


Bloody  belongs to a highly individual set of pragmatically similar items (such as blooming, damn, fucking) which do not follow the normal ‘rules’ regarding syntactic range.


Unlike a number of intensifiers (such as very, extremely and absolutely) which lost their independent lexical content of modality and reduced their syntagmatic variabiliy, semantic bleaching did not yield syntactic rigidity for bloody. In fact, bloody has acquired greater syntactic flexibility through time, and is even present in tmesis (e.g., abso-bloody-lutely, also wrongly called "infixation").


The reason of such divergence is that while other intensifiers underwent grammaticalization and developed their intensifying function from an original modal one, bloody developed its intensifying function from a modal one, but it was born as an intensifier, as shown by the earliest record of bloody (adv.) in the OED (“Not without he will promise to be bloody drunk.” (Etheredge, 1676)) and by its late attestation as a verbal adverbial (You bloody know you didn’t (1953)). Its shift was from lexico-pragmatic intensifier to pragmatic focus marker.


It will also be shown that in the case of bloody pragmatic meaning favoured semantic bleaching and that bloody’s pragmatic strengthening did not coincide with stronger subjectification (in Traugott’s (1989) sense).