Gadzooks isn’t a common word anymore. Fair enough. But this one is too good to pass up, because there was a time when you didn’t want a mother, schoolteacher, or priest within earshot when foul phonemes crossed your lips.
To the medieval mindset, obscene language was a very different breed. A map could direct you to a glade called “Fuckinggrove,” and no one would glance twice. If anything, the name was a selling point. But take the Lord’s name in vain, swear by him flippantly, or request He damn someone to hell, and you’ll find yourself outside the bounds of polite society.
In fact, it’s this Middle Age link between religion and vulgarity that gave us many of our contemporary euphemisms: swearing, profanity, and curse words.
What does this have to do with gadzooks? As linguist John McWhorter points out in Nine Nasty Words, a curious habit of medieval profanity was to swear on Jesus’ or God’s body parts, such as the “archaic-sounding eruptions” of By God’s nails and By God’s arms. Gadzooks is one such expression, coming from the equally archaic By God’s hooks (that is, the nails of Christ’s crucifixion). Another is zounds, which is derived from By God’s wounds (again referencing the crucifixion).
And if you’re wondering how gadzooks came from God’s hooks, know that the “gad” comes from egad, a workaround for exclaiming “God!” It’s part of a whole history of words designed to take the Lord’s name in vain without taking the name. Others include cripes (Christ), jeez (Jesus), and jeepers creepers (Jesus Christ). How medieval people thought they were fooling an omniscient being with this coded language is anyone’s guess.
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