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 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!
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?
A second explanation is from John Ciardi's
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]]
Dictionary of American Regional English
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]]
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.’
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”
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.
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