Who First Said, “Great Scott!”? And Who Is Scott?

I’m back to inviting readers to submit quotations whose origins they want me to try to trace, using my book, The Yale Book of Quotations, and my more recent researches.

Bill asked:

“Great Scott!

As in, I’d love to know the origin of the phrase made famous most recently by Christopher Lloyd’s zany character in the Back to the Future series, but also used with some frequency much earlier by Hank Morgan, Mark Twain’s own Connecticut Yankee.”

Garson O’Toole, creator of the fantastic quoteinvestigator.com site, has found the earliest known example of the exclamation “Great Scott!” in The Eclectic Medical Journal, December 1856:

“Oh! Moses! Let no man hereafter presume to say Ex-Prof. Buchanan has not taught, and does not teach, practical Eclecticism. He informs you, Eclectics, that these conditions are of great physiological value, ‘as they are highly applicable to the treatment of disease.’ He tells you the aquatic, or cold blooded condition, is valuable as an antiphlogistic agent, and that it soothes and tranquilizes the lungs. ‘Great Scott!’ Mystery upon mystery, and marvel upon marvel! Will day ever dawn? What does our author mean? The writer is again unexpectedly surrounded by the eternal fogs of our author’s brilliant scientific discoveries, and by the brilliancy of his elocution!”

Photo: cliff1066

The above does not give any clues as to who is the “Scott” referred to in the expression. Word-sleuth extraordinaire Barry Popik found important evidence in a book by John William De Forest, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion From Secession to Loyalty (1867):

“I follow General Scott. No Virginian need be ashamed to follow old Fuss and Feathers. We used to swear by him in the army. Great Scott! the fellows said.”

The reference is to General Winfield Scott, who commanded one of the two American armies in the Mexican War and was the Union general-in-chief at the beginning of the Civil War. This and other evidence, although not conclusive, points strongly to Winfield Scott as the source of “Great Scott!”

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?

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COMMENTS: 12


  1. David Jones says:

    I always thought Superman popularized the phrase.

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  2. Matthew Kershaw says:

    What about a phrase my Dad always used to say whenever I coughed… “cough up chicken”. Google has no definitive answer…..

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  3. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Negatory….I don’t buy it.

    There are Innumerable Google Books citations showing that Sir Walter Scott was called the Great Scott, and innumerably sources that say Mark Twain popularized the term (as irony) and hated him. In Tom Sawyer, the sinking brothel where they find the murderers was named “Walter Scott”. No coincidence. Twain often blamed the Civil War on this one demon.

    The fam’d Walter Scott, his great talents to show, Sung ” Roderigh Vich Alpine ! …. And the sense was so plain, and the words were so pretty, That Walter received for his wonderful ditty As much as would fairly have fatten’d a score of such poets as …….. Great Scott, the wise Judge of the Admiralty Court, Thought seeking this Pie such uncommon good sport, That, without more ado, he soon join’d in the play And carried seven thousand per annum away. (this is the automatic conversion. See the original image).

    Also search “Great Scot”

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  4. stephan says:

    any clear origin to “86 it”?

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    • caleb b says:

      I’ve worked in restaurant and have always used the term to mean we were out of a certain item. It had been 86′d.

      We were told it came from being 86′d, dead, as in jumping off the 86th floor of the empire state building.

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  5. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Cecil Adams write on “86″.

    http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/255/where-does-the-term-86-come-from

    The fact that there are many other number codes seems to buttress his explanation. I once heard it was from some NYC Alcohol Control Board regulation on serving unruly patrons. But whatever….

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  6. Gabe says:

    We covered “Great Scott” already, about a year and a half ago:
    http://www.freakonomics.com/2010/02/25/quotes-uncovered-great-scott-and-book-burners/

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  7. Camille says:

    It was also used in 1975 in the “Rocky Horror Picture Show”

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  8. Lk says:

    86 is a reference to “dead” the demensions of a cemetery plot.. 8 feet wide and 6 feet deep.. The item is “dead and buried” when it’s 86′ed

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  9. Dale says:

    Plumb & Nearly ?

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  10. Dale says:

    Perhaps the question of argument as to the origin and strength of the “Great Scott” exclamation, could be further satisfied in knowing its use in the Great European lands. Is it more unique to us, in other words.

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