Anyone who has been following political discourse in the US would have come across references to American blood from time to time. Not that American blood is any different from your or my blood. But references to the shedding of blood can evoke passions. Add to this the words “on American soil” and an American audience can be swayed the way you want.
The phrase became popular around 1846 when the Mexican American war broke out. President James K. Polk issued a call to arms by saying “Mexico...has invaded our territory and shed American blood on American soil.” The 9/11 terrorist attacks revived this slogan and we find it in the print media from time to time.
The word blood is associated with two areas of meaning. One is kinship or family, as when one speaks of one’s flesh and blood, or of blue blood when referring to royalty. Blood is thicker than water is a way of saying that family loyalty is more decisive than other relationships. You can say something runs in the blood to mean it is inherited.
The other area of meaning relates to aggression and violence. When something makes your blood boil, it rouses anger or indignation. To smell blood is to be ready to attack. It is said that a shark can smell blood a quarter mile away, and the smell drives it to frenzy. In cold blood refers to action that is deliberate and ruthless.
The French Revolution brought to the fore the phrase “river of blood”. The grand terror began after the death of Louis XVI in 1793. The first victim was Marie Antoinette. Tens of thousands of people were guillotined within a year. Chateaubriand saw the Revolution as a turning point separating the past from the future with a river of blood.
On a smaller scale, there was the massacre of Protestants in England by Mary Tudor, Queen from 1553 to 1558. In order to restore Roman Catholicism, she condemned many Protestants to their death on the stake. She was nicknamed Bloody Mary, a name that has been applied to a blood-coloured cocktail.
In 1940, Winston Churchill called upon the nation to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, saying, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Bloodbath, which means a savage, indiscriminate massacre of a large number of people, has been adopted into the vocabulary of business too. My dictionary defines it as “a major economic disaster”. Meltdown is too soft a word to designate the crisis.
A blood-related term that became a hot point of debate last month is “blood libel”. It refers to the false accusation that Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood in their rituals. Christians seized upon this as justification for the persecution of Jews. Hitler encouraged the spread of the blood libel myth to justify the Holocaust.
One of the earliest reports of ritual killing came from Norwich. The year was 1144, and the victim reportedly a boy named William. Soon, he came to be known as St William of Norwich; people undertook pilgrimages to his tomb and related how miracles were happening.
Last month in Tucson, Arizona, a young man named Jared Loughner shot US representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others during a public meeting. Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor, was accused of creating a climate of hatred that led to this attempted assassination. Her critics pointed to the map she had used with the crosshairs of a rifle over the districts represented by Giffords and her associates. Defending herself against the charge, Palin said the media was trying to “manufacture” a blood libel, which could only serve to incite hatred and violence.
In view of the history of anti-Semitism and of the blood libel myth, the phrase hurt where she did not intend. It did little to mend matters that Giffords was a Jew and the assassination attempt took place on Shabbat.
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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