Q: Who’s George in the expression “By George!”?
A: The phrase is a mild oath or exclamation that had its beginnings in the late 1500s. The word “George” here is a substitute for “God,” as are words like “golly,” “ginger,” “gosh,” “gum,” and so on in other similar euphemistic oaths.
The expression began life as “fore (or for) George” and “before George,” according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary. These were milder versions of “before God,” “fore God,” and so on.
The OED’s earliest example is from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play Every Man in His Humor: “I, Well! he knowes what to trust to, for George.”
The next citation in the dictionary is from John Dryden’s 1680 comedy The Kind Keeper: “Before George, ’tis so!”
The OED’s first “by George” quotation is from a 1694 translation of Rudens, a comedy by Plautus: “By George, you shan’t be a Sowce the better for what’s in it.”
Sometimes, according to the dictionary, “George!” is used by itself, minus all the prepositions. Here’s an example from Archibald Clavering Gunter’s 1888 novel Mr. Potter of Texas: “George! isn’t it horribly lonely?”
In case you’d like to read more, we’ve had several items on the blog about such euphemisms, including a posting a few years back about “gol dang it,” “gosh darn it,” “dag nab it,” and others. (And, as we’ve written on the blog, you can add “For Pete’s sake!” to the list.)
You didn’t ask, but some readers may wonder who the Scott is in “Great Scott!” This interjection, too, is a believed to be euphemistic, the OED says, a mild form of “Great God!” that originated in mid-19th-century America.
But in this case, the “Scott” was probably real. Evidence suggests, the OED says, that the name inserted into the oath was that of a revered American general, Winfield Scott. As Oxford explains:
“Winfield Scott, Commanding General of the United States Army (1841-61) and Whig party presidential candidate (1852), was a popular national figure in the United States in the mid 19th cent., celebrated as a hero for his role in the Mexican-American War (1846-8).”
The first example of “Great Scott!” cited in the OED dates from an American journal published in 1856. But this 1871 example, from John William de Forest’s novel Overland, clearly shows the connection with General Scott:
“ ‘Great—Scott!’ he gasped in his stupefaction, using the name of the then commander-in-chief for an oath, as officers sometimes did in those days.”
[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 18, 2015.]
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