Gee willikers

Grid willing, of course.

Dear Word Detective: I recently ran across, though not with my car, your explanation of “criminy,” a word I’ve used since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Not being into the whole brevity thing these days I prefer crime in Italy while contemplating youth in Asia. Interesting that “criminy” is a workaround for “Christ” as so many words are. You included “gosh” and “gee” as euphemisms for “God.” So I started wondering where “gee willikers” comes from. Who or what is Willikers, and is his first name George? — Bernie.

Hmm. I’m not sure I understand your second sentence, but that’s OK. I haven’t really understood much of what’s going on in the world since about fifteen years ago. Most of my social interactions these days seem to consist of smiling and nodding while I back towards the exit. I’ve also found that things go best if you avoid sudden moves, keep your head down and never stand in front of an open window or sit with your back to the door.

Of course, such precautions won’t help any of us evade the attention of whatever deity floats your particular boat, which raises the question of why people have put so much energy into coming up with what linguists call “minced oaths,” e.g., “gee,” “gosh,” golly,” “ciminy,” “gosh darn it,” “gee willikers” and so on ad-nearly-infinitum. “Mince” (from the Old French “mincier”) means “to chop into small pieces,” of course, but since the 16th century it has also been used to mean “to make light of a matter” or “to minimize or lessen” something. To “mince one’s words” is to restrain oneself and use polite language, so to “mince” an oath is to neuter it into a (supposedly) inoffensive euphemism. Most major religions seem to have a prohibition against invoking the Big Cheese’s name to denigrate your brother-in-law, so many minced oaths purportedly aim to avoid celestial censure. But since any deity worth his or her salt knows what you’re really thinking, that “gosh” and “golly” are actually purely for the comfort of your listeners.

The “gee” in “gee willikers,” which is a US invention, is a minced oath for “Jesus,” on a par with “gee,” “jeeze” and “gee whiz.” “Gee” itself first appeared in the US, first found in print in 1895, which seems remarkably recent. (The “first found in print” dates of all such words are, of course, somewhat dubious indicators of their true age, because many publications in the 18th and 19th centuries would probably have been reluctant to print even the neutered form of such oaths.) According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the form “jeeze” (or “jeez”) is an even more recent arrival in print, first appearing in 1923.

“Gee willikers” first appeared in print in the mid-19th century in the form “jewhilliken,” but the form “geewillikin” seems to have been the most popular early form. Like its relatives “gee,” “jeepers,” “jeeze,” et al., it’s primarily an interjection expressing surprise or amazement, rather than serious anger or frustration. The source and meaning of the “willikers” or “williken” component is, unfortunately, unknown, and will probably remain a mystery. One theory is that “geewillikens” was originally a substitution for “Jerusalem!” as an expression of surprise, which was indeed popular in the mid-19th century (“Jee-roosalem! You can’t stand there; the police won’t allow it,” 1898). This theory was popular at the time when “geewillikn” (or “jewhilliken”) itself first appeared (“‘Jerusalem!,’ a favorite New England exclamation. … In the West it is, as usual, improved to suit the louder taste of the people, and becomes “Jewhillikin,'” Americanisms, 1872). Interestingly, it seems likely that “gee whiz,” which appeared at about the same time, originated as a simplified form of “geewillikins” or “gee willikers.”

If “gee willikers” does indeed hark back to “Jerusalem,” then “gee whiz” and similar forms invoke both Jesus and Jerusalem. Of course, “Jerusalem!” as an exclamation might itself have started as a minced oath of “Jesus!”

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