holy mackerel and other holies

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holy mackerel and other holies

Post by Archived Topic » Mon May 31, 2004 4:20 am

Why do we say holy mackerel?
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There are a lot of fish in the sea – why this one?

Also, I think the following all mean just about the same thing: 'holy Moses' (obvious), 'holy moly' (euphemism for 'holy Moses,' appeared in Captain Marvel), 'holy cow' (Hindu?), 'holy cats' (?), 'holy smoke' (?), 'holy Toledo' (the holy Spanish city, but why this one?), and the obscure 'holy Scamander' (see posting of this name), all of which express feelings of astonishment, pleasure, or anger. Any comments on these or other 'holies' I’ve missed and their derivations, proper capitalization, …. ?

Ken G - March 12, 2002
Submitted by Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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holy mackerel and other holies

Post by Archived Reply » Mon May 31, 2004 5:03 am

Although I am sure to spontaneously combust if I ever walk into a place of worship, I believe the reference for Holy smoke has something to do with the incense(sp) that is used during various services. Ken, you forgot one which is well used here (and in the military) holy sh*t. I don't want to think of the possible connections with that one.
Reply from Ian Patrick (Ottawa - Canada)
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holy mackerel and other holies

Post by Archived Reply » Mon May 31, 2004 5:17 am

Holy cr*p, Ian, you’re right. How’d I miss that one – it’s probably the most widely used one of all.

Just thought of another one. The most virulent expletive I have ever heard cross my mild-mannered, former mother-in-law’s lips is 'holy toot.' I haven’t heard that one used very much by anyone else, however.. She’s from Chicago and perhaps that one is peculiar to that town (I’ll talk to her and see if she knows). In the mean time, I did some web searching and found a few possibilities: 1) Carl Jung once wrote, “ I had once actually seen this when I visited the Temple of the Holy Toot at Kandy in Ceylon” This led me to “The holy tooth temple where a relic, a tooth of the Lord Buddha, is kept and venerated is the holiest shrine of the Singhalese Buddhism.” So it seems that either the Jung statement has a misprint and/or Jung and other foreigners misheard, 2) the toot from 'Little Toot,' the children’s story of a small tugboat, 3) 'toot' is slang for cocaine (Random House [RAH]), 4) Informal. a period or instance of drunken revelry; binge; spree [RAH], 5) Australian Informal. lavatory; toilet, 6) Chiefly Pennsylvania German Area. a paper bag.[RH]. Number 1 seems the most likely, but I can’t find anything on it other than the Carl Jung statement. Does anyone know anything further on this weighty 'toot' question?

Ken G - March 13, 2002
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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holy mackerel and other holies

Post by Archived Reply » Mon May 31, 2004 5:32 am

Two things Ken, one is that in my neck of the woods toot tends to refer to marijuana not coke (I mean not cocaine).

Also, the other Holy expression I know (and may have used on occasion) would be that which explains the Immaculate Conception *G*.
Reply from Ian Patrick (Ottawa - Canada)
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holy mackerel and other holies

Post by Archived Reply » Mon May 31, 2004 5:46 am

'Holy smoke' derives from a Navajo observing a signal from a medicine man and explaining it to a forked tonguer
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holy mackerel and other holies

Post by Archived Reply » Mon May 31, 2004 6:15 am

'Holy macaroni': can be added to list of holies, but is not mentioned below. Macaronis(or ies) have holes in them (they are tubular), so this is probably a play on the homophones (homonyms) holey and holy. It has the same meaning as holy cow, etc.

Here’s a little more info with some dates, but with no new inforamtion on derivations.

American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms:

'Holy cow,' 'holy mackerel' or 'Moses' or 'moly' or 'smoke.' An exclamation of surprise, astonishment, delight, or dismay, as in Holy cow, I forgot the wine, or Holy mackerel, you won! or Holy Moses, here comes the teacher! or Holy smoke, I didn't know you were here too. The oldest of these slangy expletives uses mackerel, dating from about 1800; the one with 'Moses' dates from about 1850 and 'cow' from about 1920. None has any literal significance, and moly is a neologism devised to rhyme with “holy” and possibly a euphemism for “Moses.”
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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holy mackerel and other holies

Post by Archived Reply » Mon May 31, 2004 6:44 am

A navaho seeing an atomic cloud ( circa 1950) remarks "
wish I'd said that."
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holy mackerel and other holies

Post by Archived Reply » Mon May 31, 2004 7:13 am

Could holy "moly" be a reference to the Odyssey, in which Hermes delivers "Moly" to Odysseus to protect him from the magic of the witch Circe?

Just a thought.

Bishop
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Post by Archived Reply » Mon May 31, 2004 7:27 am

So mackerel was the original holy? Must know more about holy mackerel. Help.
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In order to prove that compassion is not dead in WWLand, I will brave the ire of the Wizzes of Curmudgeonry and take pity on your quest and absolutely ignoring the rules of the game contained in the left hand column of the Discussion topics. From the OED:

c. Phr. holy mackerel, an exclam. expressing wonder or astonishment.

1899 Ade In Babel (1903) 111 Hot? Holy sufferin' mackerel! Me pushin' up the lid+to get a little fresh air. 1944 T. Rattigan While Sun Shines ii. 218 Holy mackerel! A Duke! 1958 ‘J. Brogan’ Cummings Report xviii. 189 Holy mackerel! What a way to run an army! 1961 Amer. Speech XXXVI. 40 Holy Mary is probably the idea underlying holy Moses and holy mackerel.

So, it would seem that Holy Mackerel is nothing more than a euphemism to avoid blasphemy. From the OED it seems to be of fairly recent provenance.

Personally, I tend to lean towards more Scandinavian expressions, liberally (conservatively?) translated as:

By Cod
By the Holy Cod
By the Great Cod
By the sainted mackerel
By the Great Cod's Balls

Those are just a few of the expressions used by Scandinavian fisherman. Hope this helps! *G*

Leif, WA, USA
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Only a Scandinavian would eat cod balls....I mean, if you'll eat lutefisk, you'll eat anything...

(Shay - IL)
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Leif, Your assumption of a fairly recent origin [is that in terms of geological time? :-)] based on the OED quotes may not be correct. Those are just the quotes they found and are not necessarily the earliest ones. I’m staying with the date I gave when I touched briefly on ‘holy mackerel and other holies’ above. I said that the expression was first seen in print in about 1800 (American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms). Random House Unabridged gives a date of 1795-1805. And a date of 1803 is given in ‘I Hear America Talking’ by renowned Random House editor and lexicographer Stuart Berg Flexner. Only problem is that none of these dudes gives an actually quote from that date to back up their claim, but I suppose if they say it they probably could produce them on demand – maybe!
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As far as the origin goes, this looks like one of those iffy cases, and I will present the three explanations that I have dredged up.

One explanation I’ve pieced together is based on the old ‘blue laws’ which persisted into the 20th century in the U.S. (actually still existed in NYC when I was a kid). These puritanical and originally colonial laws restricted business and recreational activities on Sundays. Maryland’s blue laws date back to 1692, for example, but Random House gives 1775-1785 as first appearance for the expression in print. This never-on-Sunday moral edict prevented New England fisherman from selling their catch on this legislated day of rest. Mackerel along with blue fish (both of which I used to catch and loved to eat when I lived out in that neck of the woods) are very oily fish. The story was, that because an oily fish as mackerel tends to spoil quickly if not kept cool (I guess keeping cool on ice or in an icehouse was considered an undo burden), fisherman were given special permission to sell mackerel on Sundays and thus ‘holy mackerel.’ Sounds fishy to me and much like a standard bogus/bullshit story, but who knows?
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A second explanation is from John Ciardi's

Browser’s Dictionary

HOLY MACKEREL: Common American exclamation of surprise, awe, vexation. Or used as one of the mildest of minced oaths [Though a simple form, a complex evolution. Invokes contemptuous reference to Roman Catholic’s as ‘mackerel snatchers’ (because they ate fish on Friday)]

[[note: 1.mackerel was the cheapest of cheap fish (was when I was a kid) and I think it still is because many don’t care for its strong taste and oiliness (shows up a lot in cat food). Big Catholic families on tight budgets could well have tended toward this inexpensive Friday choice. 2. mackerel was also slang for a worthless or stupid fellow in the mid-19th century to the 1920s, which reinforces in what low regard this poor species was held]]
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Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)

MACKEREL-SNAPPER noun Also ‘mackerel-eater, ~ ‘-gobbler,’ ~ ‘-smacker,’ ‘-snatcher’ [from the Roman Catholic practice of eating fish on Friday] usually derogatory. A Roman Catholic. [[used
contemptuously, this expression dates from al least the mid 1800s: ‘Mackerel-snatchers. . . Yankees. . . and abolitionists’(1855) —RH Dictionary of American Slang]]
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Random House Dictionary of American Slang

HOLY MACKEREL! (used to express surprise, annoyance, or the like) 1885 in S. Crane ‘Complete Series’ page 51: ‘Holy Mackerel! I have gone and done it.’
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A third explanation is from that old classic by Eric Partridge

Dictionary of Slang & Unconventional English

HOLY MACKEREL! “Probably euphemistic for ‘Holy Michael!’ but perhaps with a hidden dig at [U.S.] ‘mackerel snappers’—Roman Catholics, who were (then) supposed to eat fish on Fridays”
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Guess I buy that ‘holy mackerel’ was originally a contemptuous reference to Roman Catholics. But the ‘Holy Michael’ thing is not bad, although as far as I could determine, Partridge is the only respectable source who ever claimed that.

Ken – September 24, 2002
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)

Holy mackerel, der Andy! Just wait'll the Kingfish reads this! You've overdone yourself again, Ken! *G* I thought the OED coverage of this was a bit mauger. Not to mention citing it as cropping up at the turn of the 20th century. Minced oaths of this type have been popular for many centuries and the English had a penchant for them.

I, too, enjoyed mackerel and blue fish caught in Long Island Sound. My favorite catching of mackerel was in Norway, where an unbaited line with twenty or so hooks with a bit of red plastic on each (a diminutive lure) was played out and soon became loaded with mackerel. Talk about "fun" when you hauled in the line. Naturally there were several lines in the water. Very dangerous to fingers and hands as mackerel are a very feisty fish and the line is bobbing all over the boat with bare hooks to catch the unwary fisherman. Fried, fresh mackerel was a favorite, also fishcakes and boiled mackerel. Shay: The mackerel balls were too small so they were just ground up in the fish cakes.

Leif
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