You think you're being utterly inoffensive when you use a wholesome curse word like jeepers or zounds. But did you know that those minced oaths come from some pretty explicit roots?
To mince words means to choose your words carefully so as to not offend someone. When you mince your oaths, you get out your frustrations without raising any eyebrows or setting a bad example for the kids.
Minced oaths are often just a twist on a curse word's usual pronunciation. They may be formed by misplacing the bad word with something that kind of rhymes or at least has some interesting alliteration. Some come from other languages; many are based in religion.
If you name it, it will come
Many of these oaths and words were developed over time because of a linguistic phenomena called "taboo deformation" — the transformation of a taboo or forbidden word into one that is socially acceptable. This method was widely used across practically every language. These taboo deformation words were mainly created out of fear that if a word was spoken there would be consequences.
An example is the word bear. Now in today's world, the word bear is perfectly harmless. However, the original word is h₂ŕ̥tḱos in the Proto-Indo-European language (the foundation for other languages including English). Bears were widely feared in the northern regions where this language was spoken. Therefore, people believed if they said h₂ŕ̥tḱos out loud they may encounter a bear in real life. “Because bears were so bad, you didn’t want to talk about them directly, so you referred to them in an oblique way,” Andrew Byrd, professor of linguistics at University of Kentucky, told Atlas Obscura. For example, the German word for bear is bär — meaning the brown one.
But a fear of getting mauled by a bear isn't the only reason why societies invented taboo words.
Minced oaths "are usually, although not exclusively, religious in nature and date from the days when it wasn't acceptable to use the name of God, Jesus or other religious notables in everyday speech," writes Gary Martin of The Phrase Finder.
For example, the word gee — used in phrases such as gee whiz and gee willikers — became a stand-in for saying Jesus. Its first known use as a curse word (as opposed to a direction to steer a mule) was around 1884. According to Merriam-Webster, the similar jeez (also geez) didn't show up until 1923. Egad was likely from "oh, God" and dates back to the 1600s.
Gadzooks and zounds, which sound like they originated with "Scooby-Doo" or the old "Batman" TV show, also have religious origins.
Dictionary references date gadzooks as far back as the late 1600s as a shortening of "by God's hooks," a reference to the nails on Christ's cross. Zounds appears to date back to the late 1500s as a euphemism for "by God's wounds."
Some are harder to figure out. Jiminy cricket (sorry, Walt Disney) is allegedly a more harmless twist on Jesus Christ. Take jiminy a step further and you get criminy.
Even the seemingly innocuous jeepers and jeepers creepers were ways to say Jesus Christ. They were first used in the late 1920s, and the goal was not to take the Lord's name in vain.
The deal with religious oaths
"Most major religions seem to have a prohibition against invoking the Big Cheese’s name to denigrate your brother-in-law, so many minced oaths purportedly aim to avoid celestial censure," writes "The Word Detective" columnist Evan Morris. "But since any deity worth his or her salt knows what you’re really thinking, that 'gosh' and 'golly' are actually purely for the comfort of your listeners."
It certainly was something you didn't do in good company, as this Sunday School handbook from the early 1900s points out:
"Shun all oaths, great and small, for they gain a terrible hold over people," writes James Wells in "Tarbell's Guide to the International Sunday-School Lessons for 1907." "I earnestly advise you to shun all little minced oaths, such as 'by Jove,' 'by George,' 'good-gracious.' Love pure, sweet, simple Saxon, and avoid everything that seems to unhallow or dishallow God's name or make it hollow."
Stolen from other languages
Occasionally, a foreign word will make its way to English as a minced oath of some sort. The Dutch, for example, gave us both poppycock and scum. Poppycock comes from the dialect pappekak, meaning "soft dung." Scum, referring to the lowest form of humanity, comes from schuim, meaning froth or foam.
Of uncertain origins
There is occasionally confusion about the origins of some of these iffy phrases. For example, the word bloody is often used in England to add emphasis — bloody hell, for example. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word was considered unprintable as a swearword until quite recently. That's because many people believed it was a blasphemous reference to either the blood of Christ or a twist on "by our Lady," a reference to the Virgin Mary.
The dictionary however, cites the source of the term as possibly a connection with the "bloods," a group of aristocratic rowdy men of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Says the citation: "Hence the phrase bloody drunk (= as drunk as a blood) meant 'very drunk indeed.'"
Because people are creative when they swear, bloody also spawned the similar-sounding ruddy and blooming.
Some interesting examples
For the easily offended, now would be a good time to stop reading. Here are a few unusual minced oaths and their original meanings. We've kept the more off-color originals off the list, but you can find them at The Phrase Finder.
Blimey — Blind me
By gum — By God
By Jove — By God
Crikey — Christ
Drat — God rot it
For crying out loud — For Christ's sake
For Pete's sake — For St. Peter's sake
Land sakes — For the Lord's sake
Sam Hill — Hell (There are also any number of real people named Sam Hill throughout history including a politician, an adventurer and a storeowner, and some say the phrase could have been coined for one of them.)
Suffering succotash (a Sylvester the Cat favorite) — Suffering Savio