I’m not sure who Pete was, originally. I suspect he got slotted into this generalised expression of annoyance merely because he had one syllable and was easy to substitute for the word you really wanted to say. But then, you’d have thought Jack would have been better. Closer to the original, as in Cripes! for Christ, Heck! for Hell or – that old favourite of American scriptwriters attempting to write Cockney – Blimey! which was originally ‘Gor Blimey’ and before that ‘God Blind – or Blame – Me!’
A number of things have prompted me to exclaim Oh, for Pete’s Sake! recently. The Millennial or Snowflake Generation, it is claimed, have grown up over-protected and therefore tending to feel special, unique, entitled, overly emotional and easily offended. I am not actually in a position to discuss this with any genuine Millennials/Snowflakes and I wouldn’t want to tar all with the same brush. But…
Recently the Prime Minister generated a great cloud of apparent shock and horror by using the word ‘Surrender’ in relation to a parliamentary Bill. Apparently, ‘Surrender’ is a militaristic word, and therefore to be classed as inflammatory language. ‘Surrender’, it seems, has never been and cannot ever be used anywhere else than in the field of battle. So if I am driving erratically and a policeman should tap on my car window and say, Excuse me, Madam, I will require you to surrender your driving licence at the nearest Police Station … ??
‘Humbug’ is an ornate, old-fashioned, but no more offensive version of ‘rubbish!’ Dickens was fond of it and had Scrooge exclaim Bah, Humbug! in A Christmas Carol. A humbug is nothing more than a sugary sweet (see above). I don’t like them myself, probably because of their horrid stripes and tooth-cracking hardness, but I would defend anybody’s right to refer to them as humbugs as opposed to laterally-banded confectionary items.
So, in relation to the apparent shocking and terrifying of his fellow MPs by the use of the word ‘Surrender’ in relation to the enactment of a Bill which would in effect bring about political surrender, he replied
“Mr Speaker, I have never heard such humbug in all my life.”
Gasp! Another shocking word.
I suspect this parliamentary outrage is of the deliberately manufactured political kind rather than true Snowflakery, which makes it hypocritical and therefore twice, nay thrice as annoying. English is a vigorous, robust, joyous language; its rich, eccentric vocabulary has been drawn from wave after wave of invaders and conquerors. We had the Saxons, we had the Vikings, we had the Romans, we had William the Conqueror, let’s face it we almost had the Germans as well… And politicians in the past, whether within Parliament or outside of it, have never shied away from using this linguistic resource to its fullest.
A couple of examples:
From Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. I for one am not afraid to find it on the internet and read it – yea, and carefully, from start to finish – for fear of some mental contamination, an instant attack of rabid racism:
“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’ .”
And then from possibly the most famous Prime Ministerial speech of all time:
‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender…’
‘Humbug’ begins to look a bit tame after that, doesn’t it?
What hope for us if we have even, now, become afraid to express our own thoughts in our own language?