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I was reading online and noticed this phrase in the comments.

Holy Toledo

What is the origin of this phrase?


It appears in Max Shulman's 1951 collection of stories, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis:

"Holy Toledo!" said Petey reverently. He plunged his hands into the raccoon coat and then his face. "Holy Toledo!" he repeated fifteen or twenty times.

But online explanations of its origin disagree, and dictionary coverage of the phrase is hard to find.

  • 1
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  • This is a good question, and there is no readily available, compelling answer to it online. I've added some research to the question in hopes that site participants will reopen it. – Sven Yargs Feb 23 at 23:56
  • @SvenYargs Please ask your own question if you're so interested - there's no point fixing blatantly unresearched questions. – curiousdannii Feb 24 at 7:01
  • @curiousdannii: The original question was posted in April 2014. The EL&U moderator team announced "New close reason: include the research" in December 2014. The OP last visited EL&U in December 2015. And the question was closed retroactively for insufficient research in March 2016. So the mods changed the rules for closure, and a question that had satisfied the rules when it was asked got whacked ex post facto because it didn't satisfy the new rules. Under the circumstances, I don't think it is outrageous for a current site participant to supply the retroactively claimed deficiency. – Sven Yargs Feb 24 at 9:25
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    @curiousdannii No, that is not the way to go about it. If a new question had been asked, it would (should) have been closed as a duplicate of this. Fixing the original question is precisely the right way to do it. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 24 at 16:33
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It's a humorous mock-swearword based on the taboo against blaspheming religious terms. There are hundreds of variations on the phrase, such as "Holy Guacamole!" and "Holy Cow!" Most of these are considered entirely non-offensive, with the exception of the best-known version, "Holy Shit!," which intensifies the taboo by combining the religious modifier with the taboo against directly referring to the fruits of the bathroom.

In the campy 60's television version of Batman, his sidekick Robin was noted for endless versions of the phrase (a habit briefly satirized in the 1997 movie "Batman and Robin").

  • More or less concurrent with the Batman use was a pitch for US auto manufacturer Jeep: "Holy Toledo, What a Car!" My recollection is that this ad campaign started before the Batman TV series, but the only references place it in 1967. – Hot Licks Mar 3 '16 at 23:25
  • I'm also wondering if it were not a catch phrase for Danny Thomas, who was featured in the Jeep ad and who was a well-known TV personality at the time. I see Thomas credited with the phrase in some references, and I recall him using it. – Hot Licks Mar 3 '16 at 23:28
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What a fun question.

I could not find the origin, though the hypothesizing is amusing.

Some suggestions:

  • came about because of the heavy concentration of churches located on Collingwood Boulevard (Toledo, Ohio)
  • Toledo, Spain is often called “the Holy City of Toledo.”
  • Holy Week has always been a bad week for show business; old-time Vaudeville actors contended that any week in Toledo was Holy Week.
  • Toledoans Joe E. Brown and Danny Thomas popularized the term as they became nationally known performers (? - This makes sense)

Another colorful possibility comes from a former policeman who joined the city police force in 1931. At that time, there was an alleged agreement between the police and underworld safecrackers (also known as box blowers and nitromen). Safecrackers would not be harassed if they would refrain from their activities in Toledo. Consequently, they could complete a job in Detroit, Cleveland or elsewhere and then retreat to Toledo - the “Holy Land.”

Searching books, the earliest I came up with was a quote from 1936:

But in this prediction the manager was wrong, for almost as he finished speaking a great booming voice was heard in the wings. "Holy Toledo, officer, I don't savvy your lingo..."

There are indeed holy cows (India) and holy smoke (Bible). "Holy Smoke! as an expression came into use ~1870s, followed by "Holy cow!" (~1915). Perhaps out of reverence to religions, and because it flows so well, Holy Toledo (that assonance) came into being.

Joe E. Brown started in the vaudeville circuits in 1902, so... it's possible. Danny Thomas started touring in the '30s, so it's less likely that he was the first to say it if it was in print in the 30's already.

Holy Toledo! How did it all begin?

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I found two early instances of "holy Toledo"—one from 1908 that seems to be merely coincidental with the later exclamation, and one from 1928 that seems to be the real deal. From the Monroe City [Missouri] Democrat (March 5, 1908):

The Toledo Blade [a daily newspaper] says. "We would rather sit and wait two months for rosy-cheeked spring to come [to] Tintinnabulous Toledo than eat strawberries all winter in Heavenly Houston." How about preferring to pluck ice cream sodas in Holy Toledo during the visit of ruddy-cheeked summer than to look for a cool place in Thermogenic Houston during the same period. —Ex.

And from The Saturday Evening Post, volume 200 (1928) [combined snippets]:

Whatever insight the adopted girl gained of her foster father's character came to her through observation—and the stars bear witness that there was plenty to observe. When he had been in regular service no one had ever noted McIntosh, engineer on 1 and 2, holding mugging parties with his oil can or stroking a polished main rod with a loving hand. He had never been known to do anything but be disagreeable and growl constantly and bring his train in on the money despite hell or high water. But when he went cut on pension, holy Toledo!

The instance from Thomas Johnson, Red War (1936) that medica cites in her excellent answer is actually one of two occurrences in that book. Here they are in somewhat fuller context:

The manager was wringing his hands, apparently on the verge of tears. "It is terrible, terrible, Herr Bayne, that this should have happened. No doubt there have been Communist riots somewhere. Alas, I fear no one will come back to see you now."

But in this prediction the manager was wrong, for almost as he finished speaking a great booming voice was heard in the wings. "Holy Toledo, officer, I don't savvy your lingo. All I want is to ...

...

"You seem to know everything, Mr. McWade."

"Holy Toledo, I wish I did!" groaned the Westerner. "But there ain't one of us can figger out what's up—except somebody's in for a swell double crossin'."

Rivers's words!

  • Missed this answer. Nice finds. Your ability to find the obscure always amaze me. (+1. btw.) – anongoodnurse Feb 23 at 19:17
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The expression holy toledo came when someone put on a lot of weight & stepped on a Toledo scale, couldn't believe the number and said "HOLY TOLEDO" instead of holy s__t. We have all done it before--that shocking sight of the scale & the increase from the last time.

  • I love this answer, but it would be so much better with a source to verify your claim. Will happily up vote if you provide a source. :) – anongoodnurse Nov 26 '15 at 5:21
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I was taught that it is because of the number of Mosques in Toledo, Spain as it was sacked by Muslims. Apparently just across the water from Northern Africa.

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