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Blood and thunder

Pronounced /blʌd ænd ˈθʌndə/Help with pronunciation

This term has long been used figuratively in the sense of bloodshed and violence, especially and at first in the US, for books, plays and other stories about the murderous exploits of desperadoes. George Augustus Sala, writing in Gaslight and Daylight in 1859 about the Whitechapel area of London, referred to “cheap literature (among which, I grieve to say it, the blood-and-thunder school preponderates)”. G K Chesterton described Jane Eyre thus: “While it is a human document written in blood, it is also one of the best blood-and-thunder detective stories in the world.”

Earlier, it appeared in The Delaware Weekly Advertiser and Farmer’s Journal of 4 September 1828, whose masthead grandly states it is “Devoted to general science, literature, mechanism, manufactures, agriculture, political economy, and current news”. It reports “By following the example thus laudably set by Senator Bully Benton, the blood-and-thunder-boys might possibly carry the election in this Borough, and perhaps in a few other places.” Earlier still, an advertisement in The Times of London on 20 November 1789 announced a farce in two acts, The Newspaper Coalition, whose characters included Blood and Thunder, a hunting parson. As an expressive oath it’s clearly even older, since in 1751 Tobias Smollett used it in The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle: “‘Blood and thunder! meaning me, sir?’ cried this artist, raising his voice, and curling his visage into a most intimidating frown.”

The cheap literature sense of blood and thunder became common in the US around 1850. It didn’t take long for humorists to see the value in spoonerising the words and thereby guying the excesses of tales about dastardly exploits. In Brook Farm, by John Thomas Codman (1894) appeared this exchange: “‘Well, how was Drew’s play?’ said one wag. ‘All blood and thunder, eh?’ ‘No; all thud and blunder,’ was the rejoinder.” But the first use of thud and blunder I can find was in The Globe of Atchison, Kansas, which in 1879 reported on some distressing local events under the headline “THUD AND BLUNDER, A Chapter of Highway Robberies, Fights and Thefts”. The article included the sad news that the local sheriff couldn’t go chasing those desperadoes because somebody had stolen his saddle harness.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 17 Feb. 2007

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-blo2.htm
Last modified: 17 February 2007.