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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a mythical sculptor who fell in love with his statue

Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Higgins in Pygmalion

Stand aside, cats on ships—there’s a new favourite HH fact in town. Well, almost. Actually, no; the favourite is still the cats on ships. But this one is still pretty bloody good:

Yes, back when men were men, women were suffragettes, and the worst word you could hear on the London stage was “bloody”, George Bernard Shaw momentously dropped the B-bomb into the script for his 1914 comedy Pygmalion. In Act 3 of the play, Eliza Doolittle—the story’s central flower-girl-turned-debutante—announces without a second thought to a room of upper class types that it’s “not bloody likely!” she’ll be going anywhere on foot.

The audience back in 1914, it’s fair to say, were flabbergasted.

The first night’s audience greeted the word with a few seconds of stunned disbelieving silence, and then hysterical laughter for at least a minute and a quarter.
Melissa Mohr, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (2013)

Shaw’s use of the B word might have threatened to scandalize prim and proper Edwardian England, but a “scandal never materialized,” according to Mohr. Quite the opposite in fact, as Eliza’s “bloody” soon amounted to the “catchword of the season.”

As we mentioned over on Twitter, the Pygmalion word quickly established itself as a popular early 1900s euphemism for bloody in its own right. Not Pygmalion likely! soon even became a popular expression too, while pygmalion talk or speech became a general, somewhat jocular name for foul language.

As for the word Pygmalion itself? Well, it began life as the name of a legendary Cypriot sculptor who, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses is said to have fallen in love with a marble statue of his own creation, which the goddess Aphrodite then brought to life.

His name (believed to be the Greek rendering of an ancient Phoenician name) is ultimately the origin of Pygmalionism—a term from psychiatry for a love expressed to an inanimate object, or else for something of your own design.

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