What is the origin of holy smoke?

To what is holy smoke referring?

  • Would it be acceptable to also note that all of the below are examples of somehow obscuring taking [deity]'s name in vain? One might say that 'holy smoke' (as an example of a veiled taking of a name in vain) would predate the Third Commandment?
    – mfg
    Aug 25, 2010 at 13:21
  • i think the reason "holly smoke" is the popular expression, is because smoke starts with an s, and is used instead of profanity
    – Andrey
    Feb 16, 2011 at 21:41
  • > The colour of the smoke signals the > results to the people assembled in St > Peter's Square. [wikipedia ](en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papal_conclave) from description of papal conclave to elect the pope. Does this have anything to do with holy smoke?
    – user5131
    Feb 17, 2011 at 7:04
  • I always thought that expression was created from Robin.
    – Neil
    Apr 22, 2011 at 9:10

5 Answers 5


After doing a little work on this, I'm quite certain holy smoke is not a minced oath nor an obscuration or euphemism for any more blasphemous exclamation. Its use as an exclamation also predates the Kipling quote by at least a decade. I found this example from a poem by Cormac O'Leary in an 1882 edition of The Reading Club, a collection of prose and poetry (date check on p. 102):

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I found several other references from the 1880s as well. @Master's comment is correct—and significant. Several of the early examples of its use read by the holy smoke. This is one reason I don't believe the exclamation is a euphemism for anything else. It was simply a shortening of this oath. And of the origin of this oath? I think @Chris Dwyer's answer nailed it. Google Books' listings of the phrase from the same time period are replete with religious references to "holy smoke." A closer look at most of them reveals that their context is in fact one of sacrifice or burnt offering as in this 1863 exegesis of a passage from Isaiah:


Michael Quinion's discussion of the phrase at World Wide Words points out the same sacrificial origin. For lack of a clear connection, however, he concludes that holy smoke was likely "invented anew as a mock-religious exclamation and mild oath on the model of the older holy Moses." I disagree. I think the oath by the holy smoke is a clear connection between the holy smoke of burnt offerings in Christian writings and the later shortened exclamation we still hear today.


I always thought it was a reference to Hebrew burnt offerings, where the smoke that was ascending to Heaven symbolized the worship of the Hebrew people going to God. This smoke was considered "holy" because the sacrifices were made holy by the priests (as it had to be holy to be in the presence of God).


  • Alright then, what about "holy mackerel"? Aug 23, 2010 at 14:47
  • 3
    @mickeyf That's a special type of smoked mackerel - smoked with holy smoke! :-)
    – neil
    Feb 10, 2011 at 14:42
  • And what about Holy Moses, and Holy Schmoly? I'm extremely sceptical about this expression being a direct reference to Hebrew burnt offerings.
    – Benjol
    Feb 14, 2011 at 5:57
  • Another of those "I always thought" answers. In this forum they may exceed answers with actual references in them.
    – GEdgar
    Mar 12, 2013 at 21:59

According to the OED, using holy with another word as an oath or expletive dates back to 1785 with Holy Willie, "a hypocritically pious person". This trend continues with other words, like cow and moses.

The first recorded instance in the OED of holy smoke is from 1892 in the book Naulahka by Kipling and Balestier. It was used again in 1920 in Bulldog Drummond by Sapper.

  • 1
    The first link should take here.
    – apaderno
    Aug 22, 2010 at 23:22
  • The first link actually says "by the holy smoke", so it's not quite the same thing.
    – delete
    Aug 23, 2010 at 1:49
  • 1
    Holy Willie! I didn't know it had to do with a hypocrite, good to know :D
    – mfg
    Aug 25, 2010 at 13:22
  • Actually, the OED has two different senses: Holy Willie (or Holy Joe as I mostly heard it) for a priest, somebody acting religiously, or a hypocrite: IMO this is simple transference. And the exclamation/oath, which is 20th century American (even the Kipling quote is 'by the holy smoke, some one has got to...' which isn't quite the same.) Dec 20, 2011 at 10:50

I believe this and all the other "holy" expressions, like "holy enchiladas, Batman", etc. originate from the Roman Catholic practice of exclaiming "Holy Mary mother of God".

  • This doesn't explain why it's holy smoke, and not holy ashes.
    – apaderno
    Feb 14, 2011 at 2:03

I've always understood it to be a minced oath of "holy shit".

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