The Grammarphobia Blog

For land’s sake!

Q: My grandmother used to say “Good land!” to express surprise or astonishment. Can you enlighten me about this expression?

A: The word “land” in the exclamation “Good land!” is a euphemism for “Lord.”

Some other examples of the usage, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as an Americanism, are “Land’s sake!” and “My land!” and “The land knows!”

The earliest OED example of “land” used this way is from an 1846 issue of the Knickerbocker, a New York literary magazine: “Jedediah, for the land’s sake, does my mouth blaze?”

However, Green’s Dictionary of Slang , which describes the usage as a “mild oath,” has an earlier one, from Letters of J. Downing, Major (1833), a satirical work actually written by the humorist Charles A. Davis: “ ‘For the land’s sake,’ says I, ‘jist look at it.’ ”

Green’s doesn’t have a citation for “Good land!” The OED’s first example is from Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: “Good land! a man can’t keep his functions regular on spring chickens thirteen hundred years old.”

The word “land” dates back to Anglo-Saxon times and has roots in landam, a prehistoric Germanic root that apparently referred to an enclosed area, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

In Old English, Ayto says, “land” branched out to mean the solid surface of the earth, as opposed to the oceans, lakes, rivers, and so on.

Here’s an example from Beowulf, which may have been written as far back as 725: “Com tha to lande lidmanna helm swithmod swymman.” In modern English, “The leader of the sailors swam toward land.” (We changed the runic letters thorn and eth to “th.”)

The use of “land” as a euphemistic oath is part of a long tradition of mild swearing. In previous blog entries we’ve written about the many phrases people use to avoid outright profanity, including “doggone it,” “dag nab it,” “gosh a’mighty,” “for Pete’s sake,” and “by cracky!”

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