Great Scott! is an exclamation of surprise, amazement, or dismay. As a distinctive but inoffensive exclamation, popular in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, and now considered dated. It presumably originates as a minced oath, but has also been associated with specific "Scotts", notably US general Winfield Scott and Scottish author Sir Walter Scott.
It is frequently assumed that Great Scott! is a minced oath of some sort, Scott replacing God. The 2010 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English labels the expression as "dated" and simply identifies it as an "arbitrary euphemism for Great God!". Alternatively, it has been suggested that it may be a corruption of the German greeting Grüss Gott.
The earliest known record of the expression is found 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!
- "I follow General Scott. No Virginian need be ashamed to follow old Fuss and Feathers. We used to swear by him in the army. Great Scott! the fellows said."
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. 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.
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’.
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.
Sir Walter Scott
While from the 1860s, the phrase seems to have been strongly associated with Winfield Scott in the United States, it has also been taken as referring to Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) since at least the 1870s, and possibly earlier.
An early reference to Sir Walter Scott as the "great Scott" is found in a poem entitled "The Wars of Bathurst 1830" published in The Sydney Monitor on 27 October 1830 (i.e. still during Scott's lifetime); the pertinent line reading "Unlike great Scott, who fell at Waterloo", in reference to Scott's poorly-received The Field of Waterloo
An explicit connection of Sir Walter Scott's name with the by-then familiar exclamation is found in a poem published 15 August 1871, on the centenary anniversary of Scott's birth:
- Whose wild free charms, he chanted forth Great Scott! ... When shall we see thy like again? Great Scott!
Mark Twain also uses the phrase to reference Sir Walter Scott and his writing. 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.
The phrase has the ring of being somewhat "dated", suggestive of the 19th century or generally an old-fashioned minced oath. 20th century publications frequently use it to suggest such a context. e.g. 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). It was also, said in "A Christmas Story" as Ralph is in line to see Santa Claus.
- The suggestion dates to at least the 1950s. "Great Scott (Punch Alm. 1930, S. 43), in Bayern USA-seitig 1954 f. identifiziert mit Grüß Gott, ist literarisch selten." Wiener Beiträge zur englischen Philologie 64-65 (1956), p. 204. In keeping with the Victorian-era origin of the phrase, it is sometimes anecdotally associated with Albert, Prince Consort. By contrast, etymologist and author John Ciardi in A Browser's Dictionary, A Common Reader Edition by The Akadine Press (1980) suggested a borrowing from the greetings exchanged by German immigrants to the United States, their cordiality contributing to the exclamatiory sense of the American adaptation, but Ciardi apparently withdrew this suggestion in a radio broadcast of 1985. Michael Quinion (Port Out, Starboard Home, 2005) references the suggestion disapprovingly, while admitting "it is clear that Great Scott! does indeed contain an euphemism for God, and so belongs in the same set as interjections like Great jumpin' Jehoshapat! and Great Caesar!"
- Who First Said, "Great Scott!"? And Who Is Scott?, Freakonomics, 09/08/2011
- Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1867, p.40
- "World Wide Words: Great Scott". World Wide Words. Michael Quinion. 21 December 2002. Retrieved 2009-01-28.
- The Galaxy, vol.12, July 1871, p.53
- "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. The poem is mock-heroic, and casts the "meeting between S****r and Sons and some bushrangers" in terms of a great battle, about which the fame of a poet might be based, unlike Scott's poem, which was considered one of his weakest works.
- ""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.