“Holy smoke” was a term used to refer to the smoke that arose from religious sacrifices or incense until the nineteenth century. Since that time, however, the phrase has been used almost exclusively as an expression of surprise, similar to the word, "wow." Although this phrase may have been adapted from its earlier use as a mild expletive, linguists believe that it is more likely that it originated as an exclamation simply because of the repeated vowel sound.
Since prehistoric times people in many religions have burned sacrifices and incense as an offering to various deities. The smoke would be intended as a specific holy gift for a god or goddess. As a result, some people have referred to the smoke from these sacrifices as “holy smoke.”
The earliest instance of this phrase in print is probably used in “The Epiphany,” a poem by Sir J. Beaumont, published in 1627. The phrase was not recorded as an exclamation until 1892, however, when Rudyard Kipling and Charles Balestier used it in their collaboration, The Naulahka. Throughout the 1960s, television show “Batman” popularized the saying through Robin’s exclamations, which included “Holy smoke, Batman!”
One prevailing theory suggests that the exclamation may have originated from the smoke sent out from the Sistine Chapel during a papal conclave. According to tradition, when a new pope is selected the College of Cardinals gathers at the Vatican to vote on who will be named the next pope. After each vote is tallied, smoke is sent out to update the people watching, signaling whether a new pope has been successfully elected. Although this would seem to qualify as “holy smoke,” some language experts doubt its connection to the expression.
Various exclamations beginning with the word “holy” have been in use for many years, at least since the phrase “holy Moses” began appearing around the 1850s. Examples of these expressions include “holy moley,” “holy roller” and “holy Toledo.” The main similarity between most of these exclamations is the letter “o,” and the fact that none of the phrases have any real meaning aside from the expression of surprise.
The phrase “holy smoke” has been used in a variety of ways, from the name of various barbeque restaurants, sauces, and cookbooks. It has been used by musicians as song titles and in song lyrics. "Holy smoke" has also been used as a movie title.