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Bloodbath is a very common term used both literally and more often figuratively. Given its possible derivation from the images suggested by wars and battles, I was surprised to see that its origin is relatively recent.

There is no entry for bloodbath in Etymonline and both Wiktionary and Random House Dictionary date its origin around 1860s

  • Coined in 1867. Compound of blood +‎ bath, the latter used referring to a metaphorical deluge.

The following book from 1851 appears to suggest that the term was probably a translation from the term "Blutbud":

The Life of John Sterling by Thomas Carlyle:

  • He made a ' Stockholm Blutbad' still famed in History (kind of open, ordered or permitted, Massacre of eighty or a hundred of his chief enemies there), 'Bloodbath,' so they name it; in Stockholm, where indeed he was lawful King, and not without unlawful enemies, had a bloodbath been the way to deal with them.

But according to Merriam-Webster the year in which the term was first used was 1814.

Questions:

Where does "bloodbath come from? Was it coined in English or was it imported and translated from abroad? What year does its first usages really date from?

  • The Stockholm Bloodbath was exactly the term that popped into my mind when I saw that 1860 date: I immediately thought “But that’s centuries after the Stockholm one!”. Note also that the Blutbad mentioned in the Carlyle book is German, not Swedish. That part appears to be a translation of German text. The Swedish (and Danish) word is blodbad. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 1 '18 at 2:06
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The earliest use of 'bloodbath' I could find was a 2 March 1795 hyphenated use, referring to the French Revolution, in the Caledonia Mercury (Midlothian, Scotland; paywalled):

Legendre — ".... Never shall the spirit of Terror and the reign of Blood be revived. Go take the blood-bath with cannibals. The National Convention of France has decided that you shall cut throats no more...."

blood-bath 1795

An apparent earlier use in a 1752 edition of Shakespeare's "The Life and Death of King John" (Act II, "Blood bath bought blood, and blows have answer'd blows; // Strength match'd with strength, and power confronted power.") is an editorial or printer's error.

The compound, as suggested by the OED, formed within English, rather than being adopted from comparable Dutch, German, Swedish or Danish compounds. Those similar compounds, although characterizable with more nuanced meaning ("a massacre", "a battle"), had in 1795 been extant since at least the 15th century. As a matter of speculation, however, knowledge of those compounds may have sponsored the use by Legendre (a butcher from Paris) at the French National Convention on 15 February 1795.

The earliest attestation shown by OED, is found in the 1814 publication of Illustrations of Northern Antiquities, from the Earlier Teutonic and Scandinavian Romances, wherein the Scottish dialect 'bluid-bath' is glossed with English as 'blood-bath' and both ('bluid-bath' and 'blood-bath') are noted to be translations from Danish for "a battle":

Bluid-bath, blood-bath; a Danish denomination for a battle.

The appearance in the R. Jamieson translation of "Stark Tiderich and Olger Danske" is only one of the three appearances in Northern Antiquities. Other appearances include the gloss already mentioned and another from the Danish romantic ballad "Oluf Pant" (from the Danish Kæmpe Viser, also translated by R. Jamieson; emphasis mine):

I' the hen-bauks up Oluf Pant he crap;
 There he was nagate fain;
The Prior took tent whareas he sat,
 And in blood-bath laid him then.

The next use of 'blood-bath' I could find was in Thomas Carlyle's 1832 essay, "Boswell's Life of Johnson", and again refers to the (then historical) French Revolution:

The strongest man can but retard the current partially and for a short hour. Yet even in such shortest retardation may not an inestimable value lie? If England has escaped the blood-bath of a French Revolution; and may yet, in virtue of this delay and of the experience it has given, work out her deliverance calmly into a new Era, let Samuel Johnson, beyond all contemporary or succeeding men, have the praise for it.

  • There's a tiny typo, you forgot the "d" in Scotland. Any reason why the Scots would place blood-bath in italics? – Mari-Lou A Jan 31 '18 at 8:17
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    @Mari-LouA, thanks. Just a guess from context: it seems to be italics for emphasis put on the word by the speaker. After that bit by Legendre, this shows up: "(A great number of members--No, never, never!)". Earlier in the proceedings, similar interjections of what the multitude is (supposedly) saying and doing appear without italics. – JEL Jan 31 '18 at 16:59
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The Oxford English Dictionary (OED.COM) says:

Origin: Formed within English, by compounding. Etymons: blood n., bath n.

Etymology: < blood n. + bath n.1 Compare Dutch bloedbad massacre (1625), German Blutbad bloodshed, massacre (1699 or earlier), Swedish blodbad (1582 in senses ‘bath in blood’ and ‘massacre’), Danish blodbad massacre (1732–5), bath in blood (1904).

With a first use in 1814 in an English translation of a Danish work:

1814 R. Jamieson tr. Stark Tiderich & Olger Danske in Illustr. Northern Antiq. 272 There lay the steed; here lay the man; Gude friends that day did twin [= part]: They leuch [= laughed] na a' to the feast that cam Whan the het bluid-bath was done.

So it seems to have been formed in English as a translation of the Danish "blodbad", but the usage had also previously been found in Swedish, German, and Dutch.

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The first citation given by the OED is from an 1814 translation:

  • 1814 R. Jamieson tr. Stark Tiderich & Olger Danske in Illustr. Northern Antiq. 272
    There lay the steed; here lay the man; Gude friends that day did twin [= part]: They leuch [= laughed] na a' to the feast that cam Whan the het bluid-bath was done.

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