Origins of "holy cow" and "holy smokes"


What are the origins of the phrases “holy cow!” and “holy smokes!”

It seems to me that “holy cow!” is a mockery of Hinduism, and “holy smokes!” is a mockery of Christianity and / or Judaism.


“Holy cow” comes from the fact that, in Hinduism, cows are considered sacred (the phrase “killing the sacred cow” means talking about something so taboo no one wants to talk about it - and most people are extremely offended when it’s talked about at first).

“Holy smoke” comes from the papal elections, in which black smoke is emitted to show that no one has been elected Pope yet, and white smoke is emitted to show that a Pope has been elected and has accepted the election.

Michael Quinion has a different take on Holy cow! here:

and on Holy smoke! here:

I must say that I think that the explanations linked here seem more likely than other explanations I’ve heard.

If “Holy Cow” was related to Hinduism, you’d expect it to have entered the language from England, where they had much more contact with India. I’m not sure that many Americans, back when the phrase was coined, knew enough about India to create an expression intentionally to be disrespectful to the Hindu beliefs.

As for “Holy Smoke,” I always assumed it came from Revelation, not papal elections, because again, most American Protestants back when the phrase was coined probably did not have a great deal of knowledge of Catholic practices, and it wasn’t as if the results of the conclave were broadcast on TV (or even radio, I think) back then.

I myself have been known to say “Holy Cats” without intending any disrespect for ancient Egyptians.

I think the important thing in cases like this is to make sure you don’t intend any offense in what you say, and to make sure you don’t take unintended offense in what other people say.



You’re probably safest, that is, least likely to offend, saying “holy moly,” which I don’t think is a variation of “holy Moses.”


“holy cinnamon toast crunch Batman!”


Since every cat I have known thinks it is a god, “holy cats” is just the truth - to them. :wink:

I say holy moly, oh my goodness, goodness gracious (what does that mean?), and good heavens. On rare occasions, heavens to Betsy.

I save other expressions for moments of great pain or major upset.

Me thinks we make much to-do about nothing, God Bless, Memaw

Agreed. memaw has spoken.


I remember the thread where someone got upset with one that I used on CAF.
PAGES long. All silliness.


Thanks for those links! I love etymology.

But I wonder if holy cow might have come from the OT - the golden calf.

So if you hit your thumb with a hammer, you come out with a blistering string of invective like “Good Golly, Miss Molly!”

Don’t forget “dagnabbit!”

Me too. I find Quinion’s World Wide Words site is a pleasure to browse.

But I wonder if holy cow might have come from the OT - the golden calf.

Nice idea.

oh snarggles

That was my first thought about it, too. I also tend to think “holy smoke” came as a reference to incense, as it’s mentioned in the Apocalypse. Since it may have originated sometime in the 1800s, that makes perfect sense, because of all of the churches that were starting to focus on the Second Coming (rapture) around that time. :shrug:

I believe the most ladylike expletive is supposed to be, “Sugar!” I’ve never found it to be that satisfying. :smiley:

I’m afraid that when I am suddenly and unexpectedly painfully injured, my actual first comment is usually unprintable. “Holy Cow,” no matter what it means, just won’t cut it. Generally I’m not blasphemous, but there are a lot of unprintable expressions that aren’t religiously based, like the one about a male puppy. :blush:


I believe it is in fact a variation of “holy Moses” or “holy Mary” in reference to Christ’s mother.

See this article here:,5753,-1451,00.html

Also this Wikipedia article:

I’ve come to believe that most of these expressions that seem innocent are just a replacement for saying “oh my god” or using “Jesus” as an expression. It makes me sad.
I think we should try not to say these things or variations of them.

Whenever my granddad expressed shock or disappointment, such as a boneheaded play by the Atlanta Braves or the like, he would yell " Oh, Judas Priest!" I found out later that “Judas Priest” was simply a euphemism for Jesus Christ.

But for several years there, I marveled at how ahead of his time he was!:cool:

My all time favorite exclamation has always been “holy cow!” and it’s what I cried out a few years ago when I fell and crushed my elbow.

I was trying to gain my composure and was being assisted to my feet when I saw a priest nearby. I was mortified and quickly apologised and said, "I’m sorry, Father, I mean just “plain cow!”

I never knew anyone could laugh that hard.

I ended up with a metal elbow after four hours of surgery, and I still say “holy cow!”

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