We have a lot of different ways to blurt out random words when we’re surprised. Some of us like to name a deity, while others might opt for a select obscenity or two. One phrase you’ve probably heard from time to time is “Holy Mackerel”. But since when did we have a religion based on a type of fish? Are people eating their aquatic overlord? Why do people say “Holy Mackerel”?
The Origin of the Word Mackerel
This isn’t the most difficult of questions to answer, when you really go down the rabbit hole. There is some required context, though–like the etymology of the word “mackerel.”
Mackerel has long been a common source of food, even when phrases like “holy cow,” “holy smokes,” and the like were first becoming popularized. But before “holy mackerel” would enter the English lexicon, the fish actually become part of another popular phrase. It was a widely-known fact that mackerel spoiled very quickly, and “stink like a mackerel” would becoming a common simile. According to The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, “There are more references to stinking mackerel in English literature than to any other fish!”
There is no denying that the name mackerel itself is pretty fun to say. The word comes from the Old French maquerel, which means pimp or procurer. We’re not 100% sure where the connection came from, but it seems to stem from an old belief regarding this particular fish species. At one time it was thought that the mackerel was integral to the mating rituals of other fish (specifically herrings). This didn’t pan out all that well scientifically, but by the time we figured that out the name seemed to have stuck.
Related post: Why Do People Say “For Pete’s Sake”?
Why Do People Say “Holy Mackerel”?
There’s no hard pin on the choice of using “holy mackerel” when people were already saying “holy cow” or “holy smokes” in the 1800s. But back then using the Lord’s name in vain was a real taboo. So expressions like these became popular mild oaths, or ways to swear without being vulgar (think “shoot” and “darn”).
It is thought that “holy mackerel” might specifically be a mild oath for “holy Mary”, which would have been a serious no-no in those days. If you didn’t want to just throw around the name of Jesus’ mom, you could replace Mary with words like “mackerel” and still feel like you’re being good.
Think you know your fish? Test your skills in this fish quiz from Sporcle.