November 11, 2013

"Sanguinary."

Writing the previous post, quoting the original Armistice Day proclamation, fixing on the word "sanguinary," I noticed that I had not looked a word up in the Oxford English Dictionary in a long time. Of course, I know that "sanguinary" means bloody, but what would motivate anyone to use the word "sanguinary," instead of "bloody"?

One reason is that "bloody" "has long had taboo status, and for many speakers constituted the strongest expletive available... Following the original use in England, Scotland, and Ireland, the sense 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." (I'm quoting the OED, which I cannot link.)

So, "sanguinary" is a useful word for avoiding offense to those who take offense, and the OED even officially defines "sanguinary" — at definition #4, slang — as "a jocular euphemism for bloody adj., n., and adv., in reports of vulgar speech." Examples:
1800   S. T. Coleridge Coll. Lett. (1956) I. 564   This Extract breathed the spirit of the most foul & sanguinary Aristocracy—& depend upon it, Sheridan is a thorough-paced bad man!
1890   R. Kipling in Macmillan's Mag. LXI. 155/1   This is sanguinary. This is unusual sanguinary. Sort o' mad country....
1910   G. B. Shaw Lett. to Granville Barker (1956) 168   The inhabitants raise up their voices and call one another sanguinary liars.
I'm not suggesting that Woodrow Wilson, in his original Armistice Day proclamation, intended to attach the suggestion of an obscenity to "war" — the noun modified by "sanguinary" — though it is common enough to call war an obscenity.

The first meaning for "sanguinary" is "Attended by bloodshed; characterized by slaughter; bloody," and the second is "Bloodthirsty; delighting in carnage." The first meaning for "bloody" is "Containing blood; composed or consisting of blood; resembling blood," which, interestingly, is less emotive than the original meaning of "sanguinary." So "sanguinary" can be considered more apt — quite aside from any desire to avoid a frisson of obscenity.

14 comments:

rhhardin said...

He probably meant cheerful.

Lem said...

san·guine
adjective: sanguine

1. optimistic or positive, esp. in an apparently bad or difficult situation.

"he is sanguine about prospects for the global economy"

surfed said...

Bloody hell you say....

rhhardin said...

but heavily tabooed c.1750-c.1920, perhaps from imagined association with menstruation; Johnson calls it "very vulgar," and OED writes of it,

Vulgar blood.

But the British use cunt in polite speech and drive on the left, which is the key.

Gabriel Hanna said...

Others beat me to it: "sanguine" also means cheerful. That was from the "four humors" personality types: sanguinary, choleric, melancholy, phlegmatic, after which bodily fluid was thought to dominate. The other three survive in English pretty much only as personality types.

David said...

President of Princeton. And don't you forget it.

Bob R said...

I DID have to look it up. I was confused by the similarity to "sanguine" as well. Here is the explanation.

"The similarity in form between sanguine, "cheerfully optimistic," and sanguinary, "bloodthirsty," may prompt one to wonder how they have come to have such different meanings. The explanation lies in medieval physiology with its notion of the four humors or bodily fluids (blood, bile, phlegm, and black bile). The relative proportions of these fluids was thought to determine a person's temperament. If blood was the predominant humor, one had a ruddy face and a disposition marked by courage, hope, and a readiness to fall in love. Such a temperament was called sanguine, the Middle English ancestor of our word sanguine. The source of the Middle English word was Old French sanguin, itself from Latin sanguineus. Both the Old French and Latin words meant "bloody," "blood-colored," Old French sanguin having the sense "sanguine in temperament" as well. Latin sanguineus was in turn derived from sanguis, "blood," just as English sanguinary is. The English adjective sanguine, first recorded in Middle English before 1350, continues to refer to the cheerfulness and optimism that accompanied a sanguine temperament but no longer has any direct reference to medieval physiology."

Ann Althouse said...

"Sanguinary" does not mean "sanguine." But if you mean to say "sanguinary" was a bad word choice because it reminds us of another word, then I see your point.

m stone said...

I'd heard that "bloody" was offensive because it had connection to the cross of Christ and, therefore, was never used in other contexts.

Bob R said...

It was obvious from the context that "sanguinary" meant something completely different from "sanguine." What confused me (I probably should have said "intrigued") is the common root with no obvious relation between the meanings of the words.

Since "sanguinary" was a common euphemism for "bloody," it was probably much better known in 1917. It wouldn't be a good choice today.

Gahrie said...

You're over thinking. Wilson was a university administration, in love with his own intellect. Of course he used the 25 dollar word instead of the 25 cent one.

Big Mike said...

What Gahrie said.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

I remember hearing that "bloody" as an expletive derived from "By the Lord," and so was a form of "taking the Lord's name in vain," like crying "Jesus Christ!"

Christy said...

From Firefly, the Safe episode (couldn't find a clip):

Zoe: You sanguine about the kinda reception we’re gonna get?
Mal: Absolutely. What’s sanguine?
Zoe: Hopeful. Plus, point of interest, it also means bloody.
Mal: Well, that pretty much covers all the options, now don’t it?