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For Pete’s sake

Q From Wayne R Zeides, USA: I was wondering if you can shed any light on for Pete’s sake. A very interesting explanation was given on a TV show, which attributed it to Michelangelo requesting funds for St Peter’s.

A Alas, that’s a classic example of folk etymology. Not only has the speaker invented a story to explain a puzzling expression but he hasn’t any feeling for history, or indeed geography. There is, for example, the annoying small fact that Michelangelo spoke a dialect of Italian and that we have to account not only for the phrase getting from Italy to (presumably) England, but for its swapping languages at least once along the way. There’s also the problem that the expression isn’t recorded before the 1920s, so where has it been in all the centuries in between? About the only thing he got right was that Michelangelo did work on St Peter’s.

Pardon my irritation! It’s easy to show such stories are nonsense, albeit usually well-meaning attempts to explain the inexplicable, but it’s often hard to put anything sensible in their place. After all, these tall tales very often grow up because conventional scholarship has failed to find out the facts.

In this case, we’re not totally without ideas. One clue is that another version of the exclamation is for the love of Pete, which seems to be slightly older (it’s recorded in print from 1918). In turn that reminds us of for the love of Mike, which is older still, from the 1880s. This last expression seems to have been a euphemistic cry to replace for the love of God, which is known from the early eighteenth century as an irritated exclamation. Another well-known exclamation, for pity’s sake, seems likely to have been an influence on the choice of Pete.

As a result, at some point around 1918, Pete joined Mike as the person to invoke when you were impatient, annoyed, frustrated or disappointed in someone or something, both men being stand-ins for the God that it would be blasphemous to mention.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 May 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 1 May 2004.