Gosh, golly, and gee casually express surprise or excitement, right? Well, yes, but when they were first introduced to the English language, these short words had a much more serious origin and purpose.
Where did golly, gosh, and gee come from?
Of the three, gosh is recorded the earliest, around 1750–60. Golly is dated to around 1840–50. Last but not least is gee, an Americanism tracked back to 1890–95.
So, what’s a euphemistic alteration?
Euphemisms substitute a mild or vague expression for one that is considered to be offensive, harsh, or vulgar. They often come into play with words concerned with religion, sex, death, and excreta (that’s a fancy word for poop and pee, which themselves can be used as euphemisms for stronger words).
For example, if you wanted to employ a euphemism to say that someone died, you might say that he “passed away” or “departed.” Or if you wanted to avoid that naughty F-word, you might say, “screw the pooch” or “shut the front door.”
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Why replace religious words?
Gosh, golly, and gee specifically avoid blasphemy. Blasphemy involves language that shows contempt or irreverence toward sacred things—you know, God. We also often refer to swear words as profanity, a word which historically referred to an irreverent, contemptuous attitude toward the sacred. These types of words are also sometimes called minced oaths.
Many faiths and cultures consider blasphemy a taboo. Christians and Jews observe the Ten Commandments, the second of which forbids taking the Lord’s name in vain. This is where gosh, golly, and gee come into play—a way out of the linguistic trouble that comes with shouting the name of one’s God in surprise, anger, frustration, or the like.
In Judaism, the name of God is considered too sacred to be uttered by us mere mortals. The Tetragrammaton is the Hebrew word for God, consisting of four letters transliterated usually as YHVH, now pronounced as Adonai (“my Lord”) or Elohim (plural form of a word meaning “God”), in substitution for the original pronunciation forbidden since the 2nd or 3rd century b.c. YHVH (or YHWH) became expanded as Yahweh or Jehovah.
There are many other minced oaths, historically including Gadzooks (apparently, God’s hooks, referring to Jesus being nailed to the cross) and zounds (Christ’s wounds). Jeez, crikey, and doggone are some others, too. Goodness gracious, there are lots of ’em!