This morning, I was driven out of bed by speculation and the need to run the search engine. Where did “crikey” come from? What does it mean?
Personally, I’ve always heard that it’s one of the large group of euphemisms for swear words. “Crikey” is supposed to be a replacement for the name of Christ, “For Christ’s sake!” or “By Christ’s X”. But most of those sound-alike euphemisms… well, they’re accented differently. They’re forceful. Cripes! Crimony! Crimonently! You could even see it if somebody yelled Crikes!
What I didn’t notice until this morning is that “Crikey” just doesn’t sound right. People don’t say that “Cri” the same way as the others. The vowel sound and the R both sound weird, if you’re trying to replace “Chri-“. Nobody has good documentation for it, and it first shows up in 1838 in print. Even the OED can only speculate in vain on what it means.
However, there’s another word I’ve just been running across in Danta De and other Gaelic-language materials, which would be a good swear word and would explain a lot of the weird features.
Croch or croich.
“Croch” is a great old word. According to MacBain’s Dictionary, in Gaelic it’s part of the verb “to hang”, and it’s also a noun for things you hang people on, like a gallows or… a cross. The soft, Latinate word for “cross” is “crois”, and the hard-sounding Celtic one is “croch” or “croich” — though they both probably come from “crux”.
There are all sorts of expressions, at least in Irish and Scottish poetry, that use this word — and I keep running across it in the genitive form. “Crann na croiche” — bough of the cross. “Toras na Croiche” — the Cross Pilgrimage, aka the Stations of the Cross. “Cnoc na Croiche” — Gibbet Hill. “Tobar na Croiche Naoimhe” — Holy Cross Well. “Comhartha Croiche Chriost” or “Sighin na Croiche” is the Sign of the Cross. “Croiche ceasta” — torment of the cross — shows up in a lot of songs and poems. There’s also a Scottish proverb that was apparently made to be yelled at people: “Baobach air an leisg a tha ann, bheir i a clann chum na croiche!” (“Confound that laziness, it brings its children to the gallows!”) Apparently somebody in an Irish play was going around yelling “Siol croiche!” (Gallows-seed!) at somebody. Similarly, “A chladhaire na croiche!” (You deserving of the gallows!) There’s also an insulting Scottish expression, “Mac-na-croiche” — son of the gallows. And apparently “Taigh na croiche air (x you don’t like)” appears to be a curse or nasty comment that’s much in use in the comments section of Scottish newspapers.
How do you say that “croiche”? In Irish, probably something like “cro-i-keh”. (I don’t know about Ulster or Scottish pronunciation, though I’m sure it’s similar except for the vowel sound.) If you said it fast, or if you picked it up off some Gaelic speaker and didn’t speak it yourself, it might sound remarkably like “Crikey!” It would fit in with the euphemistic expressions so well that uninformed people could well assume it was just another such word. And once people were saying “crikey” instead of “Croiche Chriost!” (or whatever), it would be just a euphemism!
There were an awful lot of Irish and Scottish people immigrating to London and Australia in the 1800’s. A lot of them were coming from the poorest and least developed parts of their countries, where people still spoke Irish/Gaelic. I suppose the next step would be to see if, indeed, “oi” sounds in Gaelic expressions were being transliterated or mangled this way. Another thing would be to see if Irish or Scottish people were swearing in English with swearwords including the Cross. And you know, you do hear people saying stuff like “Jesus H. Christ on the cross!”, although I’m not sure if that’s not more an Americanism than a feature of one’s heritage being Irish. 🙂 Also, people did used to tell people a lot that they should be hanged, so it could happen.
Like I said, it’s reckless speculation. But crikey! It’s a lot better swearword that way, isn’t it!