Sometimes, there’s nothing more satisfying than belting out a four-letter taboo—or a string of them. When little G-rated ears are present, however, cussing isn’t an option (“flipping freaking frothy fudgecicle!”). Whether overhearing ears are young and tiny or old and sensitive, inoffensive swearword stand-ins are often needed.
To help ease the burden of sanitizing your swearing (it’s tough, we know), we’re delving into the origins of some of the cutest ways people avoid the profanity trap. After reading these backstories, you might even choose fiddlesticks over the other F-word.
1. Jiminy Crickets!
Cute non-cusses are called minced oaths. These are euphemisms for controversial terms, made by substituting a non-objectionable word (sugar for sh*t), altering the spelling of the word (golly for God), or selecting a rhyming replacement (duck for . . . you know). Minced oaths are often substitutes for religious blasphemes. These substitutes enable people to express shock, pain, or awe without taking God’s name in vain. And, Jiminy Crickets is a prime example, standing in for Jesus Christ.
2. For Pete’s Sake!
Who is this Pete, anyway? And, why do people need be considerate of him?
For Pete’s sake is a minced oath first recorded in 1903. Pete is a stand-in for “Christ” or “God.” This sounds horrible—imagine Pete, the mall security guard struggling to be God’s replacement—but, again, substituting a sacred name with a secular one is what a lot of cute-cussing in history has been about. That said, Pete may not be so secular after all. One source cites St. Peter as the Pete.
3. Son of a Gun!
Today, son of a gun is usually used as an expression of admiration or awe, although it’s a helpful stand-in for “son of a you-know-what.”
A couple theories surround this minced oath, both seafaring in nature, but the most common explanation is a salacious one. According to a spicy rumor, in the 1500s and 1600s, prostitutes lived aboard ships to service the sailors. Occasionally, a product of such physical exertions was the birth of a baby. Labor took place behind a screen between two canons (called guns on the ship). The captain logged a birth on board as a “son of a gun.”
4. Gee Whiz! Gee Willikers!
Gee whiz is an innocuous expression of surprise that kids used in the 1950s without fear of having their mouths washed out with soap. Surprising or not, it’s another euphemism or minced oath for Jesus. Originally appearing in the 1870s as “Gee-wees,” the exclamation transformed to its current form within a decade.
5. Heavens to Betsy!
You might say Heavens to Betsy, but does anyone know to whom this quaint American name refers? Perhaps to Betsy Ross, creator of the first US Flag (First Seamstress of the US, so to speak)? Or, strangely, to the nickname for Davey Crocket’s first rifle, “Old Betsy”?
6. Jumping Jehosaphat!
The repetition of j words in jumping Jehosaphat likely made this non-cussing phrase popular. It’s just jolly to say! But, like so many of these minced oaths, there’s no clear-cut information as to its origins. What is clear is that in the 1850s, people uttered Jehosaphat as a minced oath for Jehova or Jesus.
Jehosaphat was the King of Juda, described in the Bible. Does the Bible give details of Jehosaphat’s jumping escapades? Not quite. However, a Jewish scholar’s explanation contends that the king was one of the few good rulers in the land, and he is illustrated in ancient Hebrew commentary as being so overcome with joy when he encountered a bright scholar, he’d jump off his throne to welcome the visiting sage.
7. Holy Cow!
Holy cow has been in use for well over a hundred years and possibly associates baseball and Hinduism. In the early days of baseball, exclaiming “Holy cow!” was a way players could avoid penalties for using obscene language. Some people speculate the players had an awareness of the sacred cow in Hindu culture. We can’t corroborate the degree to which the earliest players of America’s favorite game were familiar with multicultural religious practices . . . .
Gadzooks means “God’s hooks,” referencing the nails that bound Jesus to the cross. In a bittersweet turn of fate, gadzooks isn’t often heard (the bitter part), but it’s a perfectly pompous word that joins prithee, forsooth, and other antiquated terms that sound so obviously old when thrown altogether, it’s funny: “Gadzooks, man! Prithee get lost! Forsooth, I’ll burn thy hide if thou canst not get a hint!” (By the way, we didn’t just combine those words for fun. The overuse of old words is a literary device. It’s called gadzookery.)
Unless you’re a violin or fiddle player, fiddlesticks (literally the bows or sticks of fiddles) may not be a top priority in your life. Which is why in the 1600s, the expression fiddlesticks came to be used in response to something the listener determined to be “nonsense,” “silly,” or “trifling.” Perhaps, the “nonsense” association with fiddlesticks derives from an old proverb Shakespeare referred to in Henry IV: describing a big commotion over poppycock, Prince Henry declares “the devil rides on a fiddlestick.” Essentially, if the devil were to show up uninvited, he sure as heck wouldn’t be astride the bow of a violin. Total fiddlesticks.
How about some fake swearing that’s a little more PG-13? Check out these Fake Swears Used On-Screen.