For chrissake, let’s blaspheme!

This post is a parallel post to ‘For crying in the sink, let’s euphemize‘, over at my blog, Glossographia; it can be read along with it or independently.

These days, for Christ’s sake, in all its variants (e.g., for chrissake) isn’t as taboo as it once was, although it’s stronger than for heaven’s sake, which I don’t think was ever considered to be foul language, but here at Strong Language, we’re far more vulgar, for fuck’s sake.  It may not be suitable for polite company, mind you, but in general, religious profanity is less strong in contemporary English than in several other Indo-European languages, notoriously in les sacres of Quebecois French. English speakers today regard sexual terms or bodily functions more harshly, but this was not always the case; as Geoffrey Nunberg points out, 19th and early 20th century English profanity was far more religious in orientation, so that the ubiquitous use of fuck on the HBO show Deadwood, for instance, was anachronistic (in this case, consciously so).

For Christ’s sake emerges relatively late, among religiously-oriented English profanity – it’s largely, if not entirely, a 20th century phenomenon.  Using data from Google Books, as well as the Corpus of Historical American English and various newspapers (sourced from Newspaper Archive and Chronicling America), I’ve tracked down the earliest attestations of a variety of forms of for Christ’s sake from roughly 1890 to 1945.  (The usual caveats apply here in terms of written versus oral evidence when antedating terms, particularly when dealing with vulgar terms.)

Let’s trace the many transformations of for Christ’s sake across several decades.  One might think that variants would emerge relatively randomly and sporadically, but in fact, they cluster into five distinct semantic, orthographic, and morphological transformations.   Each of the sentences below is the earliest attested example I could find for a particular variant (although of course I welcome anyone who can find earlier ones).

1. Vulgarization  (before 1910)

Throughout most of the 19th century, for Christ’s sake was not vulgar at all for most speakers – it was one of a set of religious oaths that could be uttered in prayer or when invoking the Christian deity in conversation.   I haven’t been able to find any unambiguous instances from the 19th century where for Christ’s sake was used in a clearly profane manner.  There are a couple of instances (in the 1893 and 1897 examples below) where a more profane interpretation is possible. Both of these are from people in distress (in the first case, from dehydration, in the second, from risk of drowning), however, so they could be interpreted as appeals to a higher power.   By 1907, however, we clearly have a case where the only interpretation is a vulgar one (and from Yale, no less!).

1893 Charles King, Foes in Ambush 117 Oh, for Christ’s sake, water!
1897 New York Times (Oct 25) 1 For Christ’s sake get a boat, oh, get a boat!
1907 Horace Winston Stokes, The Yale Literary Magazine 647: 58 Fer Christ’s sake, spit it out, an’ git it over with.

2. Truncation (1910 – 1925)

Starting in the second decade of the century, for Christ’s sake began to appear as an expletive with the final t of Christ truncated and replaced with an apostrophe, and/or with chris reduced to cris.   We also see Christ replaced with cripes, which had been used as an independent euphemism for Christ for decades by that time, but hereafter also in the phrase cripes sake.  By this period, and especially after World War I, for Christ’s sake and its variants begin to be used less often as religious oaths and more often as expletives.

1913 Eugene O’Neill, The Web  Fur Chris’ sake, shut up!
1913 Olin Lyman, The Vacation of Bad Bill (Sunset: The Pacific Monthly 30:5) 532 “Now for cripes’ sake, don’t blow” he pleaded.
1921 Harold Hunter Armstrong (Henry G. Aikman), Zell 36 An’ for Chris’ sake, wipe your nose.
1923 John Dos Passos, Streets of Night 58 For cris’ sake lemme walk between yez a sec.

3. Amalgamation (1925 – 1929)

In the late 1920s, the truncation continued apace, with Christ and sake fully amalgamated as chrissake, crissake, chrisake, or even crisake.  These forms would become the most common forms of the phrase in later decades.  John Dos Passos seems to have used at least half a dozen variants of chrissake over the course of the 1920s; you may remember from my previous post that he was also the first to give a shit back in 1918.

1926 O.O. McIntyre, Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Jan 29) 4 For crisake he grabbed my purse!
1927 James Stevens, Mattock 147 Well for Chri’sake try to use your head, for once in your life.
1928 John Dos Passos, Airways, Inc. 49 Hey, for Chrissake people’ll think we’re nutten but kids.
1929 Harold W. Brecht, Downfall 70 Don’t talk so loud for crissake.

4. Pluralization (1929 – 1935)

Perhaps you know someone who peeves about the phrase Happy New Years, since, after all, there is only one New Year to be wished at any one time.  If so, then it is even more imperative to avoid the expletive crissakes, since, after all, there was only one Christ, ever, and he only has one sake, as far as my theology takes me.   Starting in the late 1920s and through into the mid-30s, new variants emerged that took the various forms of the decades past and added an s, turning them into quasi-plural expletives. It’s hard to say whether these really should be treated as plurals – they’re interjectional phrases, not nouns, so we don’t have anything for them to agree with – but they certainly look plural so we’ll treat them that way.

1929 Elizabeth Huntington, The Son of Dr. Tradusac, 185 For Christ’s sakes – You think you’re pretty fine – don’t you?
1932 Contact: An American Quarterly Review 46 Yeh, a martinet and for Crisakes remember it’s not a musical instrument this …
1934 George Sklar and Albert Maltz, Peace on Earth  For Chrissakes go home and sleep it off.
1934 Goetze Jeter, Moberly Daily Monitor (Apr 26) 4  F’r Crissakes, darling, what didja do with my shavin’ brush?
1935 Robert M. Coates, Esquire (Sep) 40 How about not, for Chris’ sakes?

Curiously, after an initial burst of energy in the 1930s and early 1940s, these plural variants once again became less common than the singular forms throughout most of the 20th century, only to re-emerge in the late 20th century.  By 2000, they’re almost equal in frequency once again.  The following Ngram comparing the plural and singular forms from 1940 to 2000 shows the shifting ratio of singular to plural forms (with 100% meaning that the singular and plural forms are of equal frequency, and higher values meaning that the singular is more common):

chrissake ngram pluralization 2

5. De-for-estation (1935 – 1950)

Finally, starting in the mid-30s, the connection between chrissake and the original phrase for Christ’s sake became further attenuated with the truncation of the initial for.  These forms remain less common throughout the 20th century than the forms with for, but they’re well-attested after that point.

1935 Louis Paul, The Pumpkin Coach 97 Chrissakes, whyn’t y’ lookin —
1937 Benjamin Appel, Runaround 29 Chrissake, by winter the jobs’ll be rainin’ down ‘n’ the next election in 1934’ll see you runnin’ for Assemblyman.
1944 Briarcliff Quarterly 1: 213 “Crissake,” he said finally, his voice level, low, credulous at last, “that’s a nice thing.”
1948 Frederick Laing, Six Seconds a Year 239 Chrisake what are you guys trying to do to me?
Summary and Aftermath
I don’t think we should attribute too much social significance to these linguistic transformations, but I do think it’s notable that each stage takes us farther away from the original for Christ’s sake until its origin is almost opaque.  There’s a paradox: as the variants get more opaque, their degree of blasphemy declines, although they’re clearly not minced oaths like cripes, or, as I discuss elsewhere, crying in the *  variants.  But they also transform into highly versatile, informal profanities, useful in all sorts of situations, particularly once we’re down to the one-word versions.   The full for Christ’s sake was hardly ever used as an expletive after 1930.
From its early to mid-century origins, chrissake and all its variants really only took off in print in the 1970s, at which time the taboo on printing such terms became less significant.   We can see from the following Ngram a rapid increase in several terms and particularly chrissake and chrissakes right up until the late 1980s (the blue line shows the sum of the other five):
chrissake variants ngram - main
The portion of the Ngram before 1940 hardly gives us any new information and in fact, I don’t think that a ‘culturomics’ analysis tells us much at all about the curious pattern of transformations above, which can only be tracked through poring through the texts and showing the accretion of these relatively rare variants over time.  What we can see is that after the late 80s, these forms level off in popularity and even decline.  Here, I think we can blame a new interloper: for fuck’s sake, which Jesse Sheidlower (2009: 76-7) traces back to 1943 in bowdlerized form as ‘f— sake’ and to 1961 in all its full glory.  But it wasn’t until the 1980s that it really started to take off in print:
chrissake fucks sake
It looks like the halcyon days of for Christ’s sake are probably behind us, leaving these traces of a fascinating mid-century efflorescence of forms, from an era where fuck was still unprintable and our books (and perhaps our mouths) were not so full of shit.  

6 thoughts on “For chrissake, let’s blaspheme!

  1. Chips January 2, 2015 / 8:25 pm

    Buggered if I know how it can be checked, but my sense is that “for Christ’s sake” lasted, at least in speech, quite a bit later in Australia based on my parents’ generation and into mine (born 1954). And there was definitely “for Christ’s fuckin’ sake” well after that.

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    • schrisomalis January 4, 2015 / 5:31 am

      While I agree that it would be notoriously difficult to prove, it is reasonably widely believed to be true that ‘for Christ’s sake’ is typically Australian (though whether in a truncated form or not, I couldn’t say). Clive Pearson, in ‘For Christ’s Sake: From Expletive to Confession’ (Pacifica 17, 2004, 197-215) writes:

      “Some time ago Ian Breward helpfully made us aware that
      the invocation of the name of Christ in Australia is most commonly
      associated with swearing.” Its function Down Under has often been
      more of an expletive (“For Christ’s sake!”) than a confession. The name
      of Christ sits inside an Australian verbal tradition that invariably
      attracts scholarly attention worldwide when the history and the
      anatomy of swearing, obscenity and blaspheming come into view.” (Pearson 2004: 200)

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  2. Y January 3, 2015 / 6:33 am

    The plurals Christ’s sakes and Land’s sakes go back to at least 1842 and 1853, respectively.

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    • schrisomalis January 4, 2015 / 5:25 am

      Very cool, thanks! Of course, the instances of for Christ’s sakes from the 19th century are not profane, but rather, very rare variants (<1% of all attested instances) of the appeal to the deity. I'm not inclined to interpret the efflorescence of 'chrissakes' in the 30s as related to these sporadic earlier instances.

      As for land's sake(s), heaven's sake(s), goodness' sake(s), etc., I omitted them intentionally as outside the scope of this particular study and blog, but I do think it would be interesting to trace the different sakes through their periods of popular use.

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  3. acb January 4, 2015 / 11:50 am

    Amalgamation and pluralisation may be a case of simple streamlining, rather than bowdlerisation; a parallel would be “fucksakes”, which rolls off the tongue more swiftly than “for fuck’s sake” (which sounds fussy and enunciated by comparison), whilst retaining the profanity of the original (if not sharpening it by getting the useless “for” out of the way).

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