We owe this week’s word to HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. He has been widely reported recently as uttering this imprecation — an exclamation of surprise or annoyance — upon seeing a new portrait of himself by Stuart Pearson Wright in which he is bare-chested, with a bug on his shoulder and a plant growing out of his finger. “Gadzooks!”, he commented. “As long as I don’t have to have it on my wall.” (The organisation that commissioned the portrait, the Royal Society of Arts, clearly felt similarly, since they rejected it outright.)
How very eighteenth-century of HRH to choose this word to express his feelings, since nobody but he these days utters this word other than as a conscious attempt at humorous archaism or as a cheap way to invoke a period. This latter trick is so derided that historical novelists who introduce words like prithee, zounds, gramercy and gadzooks into their dialogue are sometimes accused by British literary critics of indulging in gadzookery.
Not only modern authors, since by 1869, when R D Blackmore wrote Lorna Doone, set in the previous century, the word was already out of fashion: “ ‘Gadzooks, Master Pooke,’ said I, having learned fine words at Tiverton; ‘do you suppose that I know not then the way to carry firearms?’ ” But we must excuse Tobias Smollett, for he published The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle in 1751, when the word was at the height of its popularity: “ ‘What!’ cried the painter, in despair, ‘become a singer? Gadzooks! and the devil and all that! I’ll rather be still where I am, and let myself be devoured by vermin.’ ”
Gadzooks is usually said to be an alteration of God’s hooks, that is, the nails by which Christ was fastened to the cross. It’s one of a set of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century euphemistic oaths that used gad as a thinly disguised version of God, often attached to a second element of uncertain parentage. Other examples are Gadsbobs, Gadsnigs, Gadsbudlikins, Gadsokers, Gadsprecious, and Gadswookers.