Unrelated to Sham Wow.
Dear Word Detective: I’m a student at St John’s College (the Great Books one, not the basketball one), and while reading the Odyssey a friend and I ran across a mention of a plant called “moly” which is sacred and harvested only by the gods. It occurred to us that that the phrase “Holy Moly” might be derived therefrom. As a regular reader of your column, I have some familiarity with the process of hunting up etymologies. Fortunately, we were in the library. Our first stop was the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which was sadly lacking in information on the subject. We tried the Dictionary of Regional English and The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. All we uncovered was a reference to a comic book character, our idea about the plant prefixed by a “perhaps with reference to,” and a theory that the phrase might be a shortened and reduplicated form of “Holy Moses.” Any ideas for the Johnnies? — Elizabeth Lightwood.
I dunno. Are you sure you want to ask someone who took about 90 seconds to realize what you meant by “Johnnies”? Time for more coffee. Talk among yourselves. OK, I’m back with the coffee, and I just discovered that I already had nearly a full cup sitting right here on my desk. Maybe I should just go back to bed.
You’ve certainly hit all the logical sources in your quest for the source of “holy moly,” and I’m sure you know that you’re lucky to have a library that carries all those reference sources. I’m actually rather shocked that the OED doesn’t even mention “holy moly.” I even looked under the alternate spelling “moley,” and came up with a British slang term meaning “A potato in which razor blades are embedded, used as a weapon.” I’m almost sorry I looked. One other reference source that is helpful in such cases, the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, does have an entry for “holy moley,” but doesn’t add much to what you found elsewhere.
The comic book character you found a reference to is Captain Marvel, the superhero subject of an enormously popular strip written by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck beginning in 1940. “Holy moley!” (note the spelling) was Captain Marvel’s characteristic exclamation of surprise, and the strip popularized the saying among American youth, along with “Shazam!”, the magic word that mild-mannered radio reporter Billy Batson uttered to transform himself into Captain Marvel. (Yes, the publishers of Superman sued Parker and Beck for copyright infringement in 1953 and won. Captain Marvel returned to print, however, in 1972.
It is remotely possible that the “moly” plant played a role in the authors’ use of “Holy Moley” as Captain Marvel’s catch phrase. “Shazam,” Billy’s magic phrase, was actually the name of the sorcerer who gave him his powers to fight evil, and Shazam himself explained that his name was an acronym made from the names of ancient luminaries (S for the wisdom of Solomon, H for the strength of Hercules, A for the stamina of Atlas, Z for the power of Zeus, A for the courage of Achilles, and M for the speed of Mercury). So someone connected to the strip certainly had an eye for mythology.
But there is solid evidence that “holy moly” was already widely in use in the late 1920s as a jocular euphemism for “Holy Moses,” an oath that, at that time, might well have been offensive to some people. The writers of Captain Marvel simply picked it up and ran with it.
Interestingly, the spelling “moley,” which appeared in the very first issue of the Captain Marvel comic book, may have been influenced by the name of Professor Raymond Charles Moley, quite well-known in the 1930s as an important ally of President Franklin Roosevelt and organizer of his “Brain Trust” of advisors. Moley became even more famous after he turned against the New Deal and became a conservative Republican, and apparently there were political jingles and rhymes at the time coupling the name “Moley” with “holy.” Almost all modern uses I have found of the phrase, however, spell it “holy moly.”