A holy surprise

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by Nancy Linenkugel


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"And to that I give a rousing 'Holy catoot'!"

So ended a phone conversation with my sister, who was channeling Mom, now in heaven, and one of her favorite phrases. We heard "holy catoot" frequently over our growing-up years, as Mom usually said the phrase when something wasn't going well.

That got me wondering about the origins of "holy catoot" as well as other phrases starting with "holy." I'm from Toledo, Ohio, and easily say, "Holy Toledo." Then there's "holy mackerel," "holy smokes," "holy cow," and "holy crow," to name a few.

"Holy Toledo" is actually a slam on Toledo. The city was overrun by gangsters and violence in the 1930s, so Toledo was the farthest thing from being holy. The phrase means something of surprise, like, "Holy Toledo, I didn't know some chili recipes call for chocolate!"

"Holy mackerel" is an oxymoron: The mackerel is a smelly fish, and there's nothing holy about the smell. So "holy mackerel" relates to a surprise.

"Holy smokes" at first referred to church incense but gradually became an exclamation of surprise or astonishment. Think of how quickly something can burn.

"Holy cow" is a euphemism for "Holy Christ" and is also an exclamation of surprise. Some sports broadcasters use "holy cow" to prevent themselves from saying an unacceptable phrase on air.

"Holy crow" is also a euphemism related to "holy cow" and means something is surprising.

Now, "holy catoot" is entirely different and really has no origin, according to any sources I consulted. We think Mom just made it up from something her mother said to her when she was a little girl in holy Toledo. Surprise, surprise: Can we get a "holy catoot" for that? Mom, holy smokes, you're famous!

[Nancy Linenkugel is a Sylvania Franciscan sister and chair of the department of Health Services Administration at Xavier University, Cincinnati.]