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Why Do People Say “Holy Mackerel”?

Stephanie and her curious two-year-old want to know why we sometimes say “Holy Mackerel!” Unfortunately, the answer is about as clear as the tomato sauce Brits like to douse the fish in.

Mackerel image via Shutterstock

One thing most experts agree on is that the phrase is a euphemism for Holy Mary. Blurting “Holy Mackerel” instead of taking the Madonna’s name in vain is along the same line as saying “Darn it all,” “Oh, fudge,” or my mom’s personal favorite, “God… Bless America.”

But why was the North Atlantic fish chosen to star in the phrase as opposed to “Holy Muffin,” “Holy Muskrat” or any other semi-silly word that starts with “M”? Cupboard Love: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities offers an explanation, though you may not want to share it with your two-year-old, Stephanie.

“Mackerel,” it says, meant two things back in the 14th century: the fish, of course, but also "pimp." Why? There are two possible reasons:

1. The Dutch word “makelaar” means “broker” or “peddler,” which was eventually adopted as a slang term for an entrepreneur of the flesh.

2. There’s apparently a popular belief (I had never heard of it, but it wouldn’t be out of line to suggest that my knowledge of fish is lacking) that male mackerels guide female herring to their mates every spring. It’s not true, but the belief may have given shape to the reason mackerel is also used as the term for pimp.

This is also the likely origin of the word “Mack,” as in, “The Daddy Mack will make you jump, jump.”

Of course, none of this explains why anyone would think “Holy Pimp” is a better option than “Holy Mary.”

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January 5th, 2012

Stranger to the World


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