Q: I saw “good grief” used in a story recently, and first encountered it as a child from Charlie Brown. Is it a euphemism for something else?
A: Yes, “good grief” was originally a mild oath. It’s “a euphemism for ‘good God,’ ” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (2d ed.), by Christine Ammer.
Ammer describes it as an “exclamation expressing surprise, alarm, dismay, or some other, usually negative, emotion. For example, Good Grief! You’re not going to start all over again, or Good Grief! He’s dropped the cake.”
Although the noun “grief” is quite old, showing up in the Middle Ages, the exclamation “good grief” is relatively new.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The English Dialect Dictionary, a six-volume opus by the philologist Joseph Wright, published from 1898 to 1905:
“Good grief, a mild imprecation.” We’ve expanded the Oxford citation to add the definition (from the extensive entry for “good” in the 1900 second volume of the dialect dictionary, covering D to G).
The OED notes in an entry for “good” that it’s used “with another word euphemistically substituted” for “God” in such expressions as “good golly,” “good gravy,” “good land,” “good me,” “good gracious,” and “good grief.”
The oldest of these “good” euphemisms in the dictionary, the obsolete exclamation “good lack,” showed up in the early 1600s. (The word “lack” here comes from the archaic interjection “alack,” used to express grief, criticism, surprise, etc.)
The second citation for “good grief” in the OED is from a 1918 issue of Dialect Notes (a publication of the American Dialect Society) that includes the euphemism in a long list of exclamations.
A few exclamations that caught our eye are “good Godfrey,” “holy gumdrops,” “great goldfish,” “golly Moses,” and “gosh all hemlock.”
The first OED example for “good grief” used in popular writing is from a 1937 short story by Raymond Chandler:
“ ‘Good grief,’ De Spain said. ‘He’s up there right now.’ ” (The only version of that quotation that we could find was in a 1938 story by Chandler, “Bay City Blues.”)
However, we’ve found many earlier examples from mainstream publications, including this one from a 1915 issue of Good Housekeeping:
“ ‘Good grief!’ gasped Mannering Hitchcock, and he sank palely into a chair. ‘Are there really three of you?’ ”
We’ll end with a “good grief” example from Laughing House, a 1920 novel by the London-born American writer Meade Minnigerode:
“Good grief!” Isabelle remarked involuntarily, and Newell gave her a quick look.
“What do you mean, ‘good grief’?” he asked.
“I mean ‘good grief,’ ” she explained vaguely. “Good meaning good, and grief meaning grief …” and she refused to say anything more.
(In case you missed them, we’ve had several posts on the blog about euphemisms as mild religious oaths, including one in 2015 that discusses “by jove” and has links to some of the other posts.)