I was drawn to the word, “blood-dimmed tragedy” in the following statement of Maureen Dowd’s article titled, “Peeping Barry” in June 8 New York Times:

You could see the fear in his eyes, the fear that froze him in place, after Andy Card whispered to W. in that Florida classroom that a second plane had crashed into the twin towers. The blood-dimmed tragedy of 9/11 was chilling. But instead of rising above the fear, W. let it overwhelm his better instincts.

I know ‘blood-chilling’ and ‘blood-curdling’. But as I don’t know the word, “blood-dimmed,” I consulted English dictionaries at hand and online. None of OED, CED and Merriam-Webster includes this word and nor does Google Ngram register any incidence of “blood-dimmed.”

However, I found that “blood-dimmed tragedy” is a twist of “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” in William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;"

I wonder why Dowd – I know she loves flowery expressions - doesn’t plainly say ‘the tragedy of 9/11 was blood-chilling / curdling’ instead of ‘the blood-dimmed tragedy of 9/11 was chilling.”

How does the word “blood-dimmed,” which I cannot find in any of mainstream English dictionaries, pass current among average English speaking people? Will I be frowned on, or not, if I say “I saw a blood-dimmed car accident in my neighborhood yesterday” to my English speaking friend?

  • 6
    I don't know your friends: but I would certainly frown on anybody wishing to be understood speaking the way Maureen Dowd writes. – Tim Lymington Jun 9 '13 at 21:37
  • 3
    What @TimLymington said. But to be honest, I doubt if even Maureen Dowd could speak the way Maureen Dowd writes. She probably makes quite a lot of changes between the first draft and the final published versions of most of her pieces. – FumbleFingers Jun 9 '13 at 21:49
  • It's simply a typo. The writer meant something like "blood-tinged". The writer is well known for confused, mixed-up idioms, typo-like-errors that are muddled quotes, and so on, and it's just a typical unremarkable example of that. – Fattie Jun 9 '17 at 18:05

You'd probably raise some eyebrows if you used blood-dimmed in normal conversation. It's not at all a common usage, and I'd hazard a guess that even most native speakers wouldn't be too clear on the exact meaning (it's dimmed = made dim, dark, akin to rivers dark with blood).

I also doubt most people would recognise the allusion to Yeats’ poem, but it certainly seems to me most references to blood-dimmed in Google Books are followed by the word tide, and do in fact stem directly from “The Second Coming”.

In this case I think it's probably fair to say Dowd is aiming more for a sense of "scholarly erudition" than "flowery language". She probably knows most of her readers won't pick up on the reference, but she assumes the few that do will admire her for using it (and themselves for "getting it").

  • I can't support this. It's nothing more than the ubiquitous "mangled quote/idiom/phrase/whatever" that you constantly see in the NYT. – Fattie Jun 9 '17 at 18:11
  • @Fattie: Are you implying that Dowd herself was unaware of the allusion? I'm not exactly one of her biggest fans, but I think that's vanishingly unlikely. And as StoneyB points out below, Dowd has a pretty firm grip on how the language works. – FumbleFingers Jun 10 '17 at 13:58
  • Howdy; to keep it simple, I'd just restate: "mangled idioms/phrases are ubiquitous in the NYT". – Fattie Jun 10 '17 at 16:20
  • @Fattie: That's supremely unenlightening. Am I repeating myself if I say it seems pretty obvious that Dowd is a competent and well-read writer who deliberately alluded to Yeats’ poem? Does your repetition of mangled idioms/phrases imply you genuinely think she didn't know exactly what she was doing? Or do you just object to such "erudite, literary" techniques in general? – FumbleFingers Jun 10 '17 at 16:35
  • Yes, I actually doubt Ms. Dowd, specifically, necessarily really "knew what she was doing". Would you please note though that in my first comment above, I typed: I can't support this. It's nothing more than the ubiquitous "mangled quote/idiom/phrase/whatever" that you constantly see in the NYT. Pls note that I did not mention Dowd specifically, and, as it were, I really don't want to talk about her. – Fattie Jun 10 '17 at 16:41

I think FumbleFingers not only hits the nail on the head, he drives it pretty much home. This is just to countersink it by addressing this piece of your question:

I wonder why Dowd [...] doesn’t plainly say ‘the tragedy of 9/11 was blood-chilling / curdling’ instead of ‘the blood-dimmed tragedy of 9/11 was chilling.”

Whatever her use of it, Dowd has a pretty firm grip on how the language works; so I think she says blood-dimmed rather than blood-chilling because that's what she means. Dimmed means made not just dim and dark but also obscure, difficult to make out; Dowd is suggesting that W's fear was aroused not just by the horror of the event but by its opacity.

  • 2
    @ StoneyB: I know what you mean. Yoichi's a really good questioner because he always does his homework before asking. Besides, you're quite right to call attention to the fact that Dowd was almost certainly aware of the "obscuring" implications. I must admit I tend to exude a certain "sniffiness" towards her turns of phrase, but that's because they would often be seriously out of place in normal conversation. In her actual context (well-lettered columnist), she's a careful and competent writer. – FumbleFingers Jun 9 '13 at 23:10
  • 1
    @rhetorician, Yoichi: StoneyB's countersinking is pretty neat in context, but you have to be careful not to stretch the analogy too far. It's true the more forceful among us do like to hammer home a point in a debate, for example. But it's invariably screws which are countersunk. You wouldn't want anyone to be put in mind of things like "When all you have is a hammer, everything (including a screw) looks like a nail". – FumbleFingers Jun 10 '13 at 20:58
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers Back in the dark ages when I worked in scene shops the act of sinking the head of a finishing nail into the surface of the wood with a nailset was called countersinking, and this use seems still to be common in the US: Google "countersink nail". – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 10 '13 at 21:30
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers I've heard set a nail as well. – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 10 '13 at 21:47
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers/StoneyB: Wikipedia provides an amusing addendum: Except in the most literal of cases where the opposite of using a golden hammer (in contrast to ‘When all you have is a hammer ...' ) would presumably be using the "right tool for the job," the antonym for this mindset would be "there's more than one way to skin a cat." – Yoichi Oishi Jun 11 '13 at 5:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.