Dot Wordsworth

Not bloody likely

It brought the house down in Pygmalion but the joke proved too controversial for Hollywood

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In My Fair Lady, which came out as a film in 1964, 50 years after Shaw’s Pygmalion, they decided to update Eliza’s exclamation of ‘Walk! Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi’, which, on the first night in 1914, had ‘brought the house down’ on the lips of Mrs Patrick Campbell, according to the Daily Telegraph review. So at Ascot, Eliza in the film shouts at her favoured horse: ‘Move yer bloomin’ arse.’

In the Pygmalion version, half the joke is saying bloody in a duchess’s accent, but Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza falls out of her trained accent in excitement and shouts in Cockney. It seems odd that bloody was then brought down a notch to bloomin’, but perhaps American audiences were less familiar with bloody as an ordinary intensifier in speech.

I was only thinking about this because I’d found myself a little annoyed recently by hearing people using likely as an adverb, as a synonym for probably. Thus drivers staying at home during half term ‘will likely free up the roads for other commuters’, the Sun reported. My annoyance, I discover, was misplaced, since likely has been used in this sense for centuries,

Still, just as not all adverbs end in ly, so not all words ending in ly are adverbs. Likely is usually an adjective. As soon as Pygmalion was staged, a play on words went round by which, instead of ‘not bloody likely’, people said ‘not Pygmalion likely’. I’ve never heard it said, though Dorothy L. Sayers used the phrase in dialogue in her detective novel Clouds of Witness (1926).

It is surprising that bloody was genuinely a taboo word when no one quite knew what it meant. Some thought it an invocation of God’s blood, others a reduced form of bylady. In 1884, the St James’s Gazette reported that farmers around Ludlow, ‘although none of them are Roman Catholics, swear “by’r Leddie”.’ But a shift from interjection to intensifier would be strange.

Bloody (like fucking) is often interpolated in phrases (such as Eliza’s), or even between syllables. By prosodic laws, it must come before the stressed syllable, which suits words best that have more than one syllable before the stress. The favourite is abso-bloody-lutely.