Taking Names in Vain

Why we care, for Pete’s sake

You’re with your five-year-old at the ice cream shop, and she can’t decide which of the dozens of flavors to get on her waffle cone. Behind you, the line is building, as is your frustration. So you finally say to her, “For Pete’s sake! Just pick one!” And she looks up with those innocent eyes and asks, “Who’s Pete?”

Now you can tell her: It’s a nice way of swearing, invoking the name of St. Peter instead of his boss.

Many polite swear words or phrases use religious references that way, and many originated in the United States. “Jeepers!” is an obvious euphemism for Jesus; credit for “jeepers creepers!” is usually given to Billy De Beck in 1928. De Beck, a cartoonist who created “Snuffy Smith” and “Barney Google” (with the goo-goo-googly eyes, and no relation to the search behemoth), is also credited with creating other rhyming phrases, such as “heebie-jeebies” and “hotsy-totsy.”

That alliterative bent shows up, too, in “Jumping Jehosaphat,” which the Oxford English Dictionary traces as an expletive to the United States in 1866. “Jehosaphat,” also spelled “Jehoshaphat” but never with an “n,” is literally a reference to a biblical king of Judah. Jehosaphat himself had a distinguished career and didn’t do much worth swearing about, so using his name is most likely a way of using “Jesus” without offense:

“Holy Toledo” probably refers to the city in Spain, and not the one in Ohio, though some Ohioans would like to think it refers to either the large number of churches or the large number of saloons in that city. The Spanish city was “liberated” from the Moors in 1085, and became one of the greatest Christian centers. So people could swear on that holy city, as they could on a sacred fish (“holy mackerel!”) or bovine (“holy cow!”). Anything to avoid blasphemy!

Although the phrase apparently originated in the early twentieth century, “holy Toledo” might also have something to do with the way people used their weapons as expressions of faith. Warriors would pledge their swords to their sovereigns, and thus swear on them that something was true. (“By my sword, Beatrice, thou lovest me,” Benedick says in Much Ado Without About Nothing.) And the city of Toledo (the Spanish one) was known for the fine quality of its swords, which were often called “toledos.” So it’s just possible that the “holy toledo” of surprise was a reference to swearing alliance on a sacred sword.

Weapons may also figure in “heavens to Betsy,” another phrase whose origin is unclear. The “heavens” part is easy, but no one is quite sure where “Betsy” came from. The OED posits that “Betsy” refers to frontier slang for a favorite rifle or shotgun (“I’m gonna take Old Betsy and hunt down that varmint!”). The phrase, which may have originated in the mid-nineteenth century, thus might be also be a reference to fealty sworn on a constant companion.

The heavens, of course, are one of the most popular things to swear on or about. But it’s anyone’s guess whether “heavens to Murgatroyd” traces to Gilbert and Sullivan, a 1944 Bert Lahr movie, or “Snagglepuss” from the “Yogi Bear” cartoons. And if you’ve heard of none of those, then for Pete’s sake, look them up!

Correction: We originally referred to a play called Much Ado Without Nothing. While a play of that name may exist, we obviously meant to refer to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the (quite embarrassing) error.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,