Minced oaths and the Victorian playboy still shaping English today
As a professional copywriter, I love unearthing the quirky links between words and phrases we all use today, and their historical origins.
Take the phrase ‘Gordon Bennett!’, an expression widely recognised (in the UK at least) as an exclamation of surprise or shock.
So who exactly was Gordon Bennett and why do we take his name in vain?
James Gordon Bennett Jr was the son of James Gordon Bennett Snr, who emigrated to the United States from Scotland in the early 19th century and founded the New York Herald newspaper.
On the back of his father’s success, wealth and powerful links, young Gordon Bennett flung himself into New York’s party scene.
Indeed, he was so enthusiastic in his approach to alcohol that he destroyed his engagement to a well-known socialite, Caroline May, in spectacular fashion.
“At an 1877 New Year’s party, Bennett was unable to tell the difference between the fireplace and the toilet – horrifying guests to such an extent that his only option was to head to England in disgrace.”
However, his commitment to journalism was just as strong as his bond with liquor. Despite enjoying the power of his father’s vast fortune, Bennett continued to run the New York Herald, which he had taken over 1866, from on board his $600,000 yacht, the Lysistrata.
By the time of his death in 1918, Bennett’s exuberant approach to life had earned him a place in the public conscience and secured his (small) place in history.
Within 20 years, author James Curtis used the phrase ‘Gordon Bennett’ in his novel You’re in the Racket, Too as a minced oath, to express shock and surprise.
A minced oath is a typically British construct – a phrase or saying that is used so as not to offend others in the conversation with anything as rude or coarse as a recognised swear word. They are particularly common when trying to convey surprise or annoyance.
The exclamation ‘Gordon Bennett!’ is still commonly used today, although granted, it tends to be most recognised by people ‘over a certain age’.
Other common minced oaths include bejabbers instead of By Jesus, cripes instead of Christ, and shoot instead of sh*t.
Gordon Bennett is actually a secondary minced oath – it is itself a replacement for the phrase gor blimey, (or its variant, cor blimey!) which are both mellower variations of God blind me.
But the fact that any native English speaker will instantly recognise the phrase Gordon Bennett and its appropriate use shows the enduring power of minced oaths – even if only a small percentage of the population has ever actually heard of the real Gordon Bennett.