geez, jeez!


As with many of my discoveries about English, this one happened during a Scrabble game. I had played GEEZ and my opponent challenged it, stating that she thought I needed a J rather than a G. When British people think I've got English wrong, I make a note of it, go home, and look it up. And about half the time, it is because there is a national/dialectal difference to be found. (The rest of the time, it's down to some weird beliefs about language. And most of the things we believe about language are weird, and little to do with reality. This has been the main thesis of my research career.)

Geez/jeez is originally AmE, a way of not-taking the name Jesus in vain. I was probably an adult before I reali{s/z}ed that. To me, it was just some thing people said, and I didn't make the connection, just like a lot of people probably don't reali{s/z}e (till someone tells them) that (BrE) crikey is a way to avoid saying Christ or (BrE) cor, blimey stared as an avoidance of God blind me.

Whether people spelled it with a G because they didn't see the relationship to Jesus or whether using the G was a way to keep it one more step removed from Jesus, I don't know. What I do know is that the G is the more common spelling in AmE, but it's rarely used in BrE, where the expression has caught on (not least in imitations of Americans). I suspect that when it entered BrE people could see its minced-oath nature, and so assumed it was spel{led/t} with a J.

Click to embiggen.
https://www.english-corpora.org/glowbe/
 As we've seen before, there's a lot of spelling variation in interjections, which start their lives in speech and mostly stay there. They never get tested in school spelling quizzes, you just do what you want with them.  It will be interesting to see whether there's more standardization of the spelling of speech-like bits as an effect of the more speech-like writing we do online.  (If anyone knows of such research, I'd be interested to hear about it. I had a quick look and didn't find anything super-relevant, but there must be some out there.)

Jack Grieve has made a word-mapper tool for seeing where particular words are tweeted most in the USA. You might enjoy his maps of Sweary USA. I tried it for geez/jeez to see if there's any variation in the US. As you can see, saying {g/j}eez is not a regional thing. It's all over. But spelling it with the J, while less common overall (note the different colo[u]r scales for the maps), is more common in 'the North', i.e. the northeast and northern midwest.



What struck me about the jeez map is how the jeez area seems to echo Yankeedom in Colin Woodard's American Nations. Woodard's book posits that different regional subcultures of the US derive from its migration histories, with value systems travel(l)ing westward from the east coast (and then dispersing in different ways when migration patterns become less linear and sparser in the 'west'. Woodard's maps look much like maps of major dialect areas in the US.

https://www.businessinsider.com/the-11-nations-of-the-united-states-2015-7
Perhaps BrE has the jeez spelling because of greater contact with the northeast—though I doubt that is the relevant issue, since exposure to the word is probably mostly through speech. Perhaps Yankeedom and the UK have in common a feeling that the oath does not need so much mincing, and so they are more apt to spell it in line with its etymology.

If you're interested similar speaking/spelling problems, you be interested in these other posts. Please comment about those ones at their posts and keep those parties going:

24 comments

  1. Do 'gee' and 'gee whiz' -- used in AmE as extremely non-profane expressions of surprise -- derive from 'geez'?

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    1. Geez/Jeez is found in print later than the other two (1920s v 1880s/90s) according to the OED. It's not necessarily that any of them derive from each other, though. They all have a clear path to be shortened from 'Jesus'.

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    2. Might the spelling 'geez' be favoured by the previous use of 'gee' though? (Is that ever spelt 'jee'?)

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    3. Good point. I think that’s part of why I didn’t see the connection to Jesus—even though they’re all minced oaths.

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  2. James Thurber's book The Years With Ross (1959), an informal biography of the first editor of the New Yorker, represents Ross as saying "Geezus", because he felt that Ross's use of this word had nothing to do with the Deity. It took me a while to figure out that Thurber didn't mean /gizəs/, as in geezer!

    (He also said that Ross said "God bless you" as a farewell a lot, and on one occasion "God bless you, Thurber, goddammit".). See also Sentence First on Ross, intensives, and merely verbal contradictions.)

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    1. Indeed, why would 'geez' be different from 'geese' - how would one know how to pronounce it?
      The oath with an Irish accent - bejesus or bejaysus - retains the initial consonant.

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    2. Which this AmE speaker would spell "begeezus"

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  3. David Marjanović03 March, 2020 13:33

    Also jeesh and the much more common sheesh.

    I once read a comment somewhere on the innertubes by someone who said "oh gee" in school (in the US at least half a century ago), was made to stand in the corner to think about what she had just done, and didn't figure out what she had supposedly done for years or decades.

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  4. Most importantly, which spelling was allowed in the Scabble dictionary? Or both? 😆

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    1. Both are listed, but for geez it gives the definition "jeez."

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    2. Is that a UK Scrabble dictionary or a US one? :-)

      Not a Scrabble fan but I am a cryptic crossword fan and Chambers Dictionary is often the standard dictionary for crosswords - Azed in the Observer not only recommends it but points out if answers aren't in it.

      Chambers doesn't have geez, although it does have Ge'ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia. It also has Jeeze as an alternative spelling of Jeez, and capitalises both, presumably to emphasise it's from Jesus.

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    3. Outside North America, Scrabble is played with an official word list that (some time ago) combined the North American and British Scrabble word list. (But before that, the 'standard' US/UK spelling variations were included anyway.) Since then, the two Scrabble standards have mutated further.

      Note I say 'word list', because tournament Scrabble 'dictionaries' have no definitions, just lists of words in all their inflected versions.

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    4. I recall seeing a Chambers Scrabble dictionary on sale many years ago, but I see it's not listed on their website any more.

      Mind you Chambers seem to have stopped printing dictionaries. The last paper edition came out in 2014 although it was reprinted with a major mistake corrected. The previous edition had highlighted "interesting" words (such as "taghairm" - to sit under a waterfall wearing a bullock hide) but they decided to remove the highlighting and wires got crossed and they removed all those interesting words entirely.

      My copy of Chambers has fallen to bits and I now rely on an electronic version. (Not the free online version but a downloadable app.)

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    5. Chambers lost the licen{c/s}e some time ago. Collins has it now.

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    6. Still, I find it interesting that geez isn't in the latest Chambers, which is usually quite inclusive.

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  5. My mother objected to "jeez" but not "gee whiz"—almost certainly because that was the rule her own mother had. However, I think this impression of "gee whiz" as less profane may be fairly commonplace. As a young child, I am sure that I saw "gee whiz" spelled out plenty of times, before the other word. I first saw "jeez" in written form in Bunnicula; it was spelled that way, with a "j." Previously, I had imagined the word as having a soft "g," but seeing it spelled "jeez" immediately clued me in that it was a minced version of "Jesus." That explained why my mother objected to it, but I thought that it was stupid to object to "jeez" but not "gee whiz," since the latter was quite obviously also a minced oath.

    While I had seen "gee whiz" in print plenty of time.

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  6. Informal writing on the internet is the main topic of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, by Gretchen McCulloch, published in 2019. Haven't you read that already?

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    1. Yes, I reviewed it here a few months ago. Geez/Jeez is a pre-internet word and variation.

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  7. Many of the differences I run into come up in folk songs, most recently "a little tin," which I understood as a small tin box but which a friend tells me means a little money.

    Sorry--that's off topic but a recent discovery, so I thought I'd drop it on your doorstep.

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  8. I remember as a schoolgirl writing a story in which an American child exclaimed "Gee, it's (whatever)!". I didn't then know it was a minced oath, but worked it out later.

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  9. This surprised me because I was 100% sure it was spelled "geeze", and always spell it that way. According to the map, I'm from "jeez" territory, so I guess probably it's just bad spelling + not something my spellchecker will fix for me.

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  10. Excited to see you posting again and referring to one of my favorite writers from the great state of Maine - but it's Colin Woodard, not Woodward. Jeezum Crow!

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    1. Despite knowing that, I typed it wrong three times! (Or maybe it was auto"corrected" for me. Thanks! I have corrected it now.

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  11. I always thought “jeez” was an Australianism. I rarely - if ever - heard it growing up in the UK, but heard it on Aussie TV shows.

    I wonder if it’s used differently in AusE and AmE? An Aussie would tend to say “Jeez, mate, look at the size of them dingoes” rather than “Aww Jeez/Geez”. But maybe I’m overthinking it.

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)