Q From Jonathon Williams; related questions came from Stanley Frost in Canada and Peter Botha in Australia: I was wondering where the phrase Great Scott comes from. On another site I read that it’s actually a corruption of the German greeting Grüß Gott!. Is it really German?
A The late John Ciardi also once believed this, though he recanted in a radio broadcast in 1985. You can be sure German immigrants to the US, say from Bavaria or Austria, brought with them their usual greeting, though it isn’t easy to work out how it could have been converted to Great Scott, since the German greeting is usually half swallowed and doesn’t sound anything like it. On the other hand, it is clear that the English phrase does indeed contain a euphemism for God, and so belongs in the same set as interjections like Great jumpin’ Jehoshaphat! and Great Caesar!
There’s some confusion about this one, with various possibilities being put forward for the Scott in question — sometimes a generic archetypal Scot is suggested and even Sir Walter Scott has been mentioned (this last one isn’t so daft as you might think, as I’ve found several examples in nineteenth-century writings to “the great Scott” in reference to him).
Let’s look at the facts. Until recently the earliest known example, in the big Oxford English Dictionary, was from F Anstey’s Tinted Venus of 1885: “Great Scott! I must be bad!”. But the digitising of electronic texts and the recent publication of the diary of an American Civil War veteran have moved the saying back in stages to the time of that conflict. The diary is Eye of the Storm: a Civil War Odyssey, written and illustrated by Private Robert Knox Sneden. He says in his diary entry of 3 May 1864: “ ‘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’ ”.
So it’s almost certainly American, of Civil War era at the latest. Two later examples that I recently found suggest that it may have referred to a real person. One is from Galaxy magazine of July 1871: “ ‘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”. The other is from a book of 1872, Americanisms; the English of the New world by the excellently named Maximilian Schele De Vere: “ ‘Scott, Great!’ a curious euphemistic oath, in which the name of a well-known general is substituted for the original word, probably merely because of its monosyllabic form”. Another electronic search, by Fred Shapiro of Yale Law School, turned up an earlier example from a May 1861 issue of The New York Times: “These gathering hosts of loyal freemen, under the command of the great SCOTT”.
There was indeed a famous American general named Scott, who did have the title of commander-in-chief of the US Army at the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, though he is best known as one of the two American heroes of the Mexican War of 1846–48 (if, that is, you’re American and not Mexican). This was General Winfield Scott, known to his troops as Old Fuss and Feathers. It seems plausible that he is the source being pointed to, especially as in his later years he weighed 300 pounds (21 stone or 136kg) was too fat to ride a horse and was certainly a great Scott in a very literal sense.
There’s nothing new in this attribution, however. Winfield Scott has previously been fingered as the origin by several writers, among them Eric Partridge. And we still can’t be absolutely sure that he was the Scott being alluded to. But the combination of dates and the references written so soon after the event point to him quite strongly.