Great Scott

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This article is about the exclamation. For other uses, see Great Scott (disambiguation).

Great Scott! is an exclamation of surprise, amazement, or dismay. As a distinctive but inoffensive exclamation, it has been widely used as a catchphrase in popular fiction, including the works of Mark Twain, the Rathbone–Bruce Sherlock Holmes films (said by Dr. Watson), Silver Age comics (especially Superman), Mr Wilson in the television series Dennis the Menace, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the Back to the Future films (Dr. Emmett Brown).

Possible origins[edit]

The origin of the expression is uncertain, with several plausible sources.

A poem published in The Sydney Monitor, on 27 October 1830, included the line "Unlike great Scott, who fell at Waterloo"[1]

The phrase was apparently used in The Eclectic Medical Journal, December 1856:

He tells you the aquatic, or cold blooded condition, is valuable as an antiphlogistic agent, and that it soothes and tranquilizes the lungs. ‘Great Scott!’ Mystery upon mystery, and marvel upon marvel![2]

A likely source is as a reference to American Civil War commander‑in‑chief of the U.S. Army, General Winfield Scott. The general, known to his troops as Old Fuss and Feathers, weighed 300 pounds (21 stone or 136 kg) in his later years and was too fat to ride a horse.[3] A May 1861 edition of the New York Times included the sentence:

These gathering hosts of loyal freemen, under the command of the great SCOTT.

J. W. DeForest uses the phrase in Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867)

Never when on duty; Great Scott![4]

The phrase also appears in the 3 May 1864 diary entry by Private Robert Knox Sneden (later published as Eye of the Storm: a Civil War Odyssey):

‘Great Scott,’ who would have thought that this would be the destiny of the Union Volunteer in 1861–2 while marching down Broadway to the tune of ‘John Brown’s Body’.[3]

In the July 1871 issue of the The Galaxy, in the story "Overland", the expression is again used by author by J. W. DeForest:

"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.[5]

The phrase was also used regarding Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) in a poem published on 15 August 1871, on the centenary anniversary of his birth:

Whose wild free charms, he chanted forth Great Scott! ... When shall we see thy like again? Great Scott![6]

Another possible origin is an anglicized corruption of an expression used by the German Albert, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria, transforming "Grüss Gott" ("Greet God") into "Great Scott". The etymologist and author John Ciardi once believed this, but later recanted in a radio broadcast in 1985.[citation needed]

Similarly, the expression could be a minced oath, derived from the English phrase "[by the] grace of God".[citation needed]

Another possible source comes from Mark Twain's hatred for Sir Walter Scott and his writing, which popularized historical fiction and romanticized war in general. Twain's disdain for Scott is evident in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), in which the main character repeatedly utters "great Scott" as an oath, and in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), where he names a sinking boat the Walter Scott.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "The Wars of Bathurst 1830.". The Sydney Monitor (NSW : 1828 - 1838) (NSW: National Library of Australia). 27 October 1830. p. 3 Edition: AFTERNOON. Retrieved 5 April 2014. 
  2. ^ Who First Said, “Great Scott!”? And Who Is Scott?, Freakonomics, 09/08/2011
  3. ^ a b "World Wide Words: Great Scott". World Wide Words. Michael Quinion. 21 December 2002. Retrieved 2009-01-28. 
  4. ^ Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1867, p.40
  5. ^ The Galaxy, vol.12, July 1871, p.53
  6. ^ ""Scott's Centenary," 15 August, 1871.". The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954) (NSW: National Library of Australia). 15 August 1871. p. 5. Retrieved 5 April 2014.