We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What Does "Holy Smoke" Mean?

By Laura Metz
Updated May 23, 2024
Our promise to you
Language & Humanities is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At Language & Humanities, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

“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.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Link to Sources
Discussion Comments
By Grivusangel — On Jun 13, 2014

@Wisedly33 -- You make an interesting point about it being primarily an American English expression. Even interjections are kind of regional/cultural. "Holy smoke" rather calls cowboys, Westerns and the rugged America to mind. It's the kind of unadorned expression Americans tend to prefer.

Not that Americans don't use plenty of colorful language, but as a rule, American English is a little plainer than it is in some other countries.

By Wisedly33 — On Jun 12, 2014

Actually, it's probably generally most used by those (like me) who usually choose not to use profanity, so it's a good substitute for another word that starts with an "s."

It's always acceptable, no matter the company you're in. You can say it in front of your grandmother or fussy aunt. And when sufficiently accented, hearers are in no doubt of the word you would rather use, but are choosing not to use.

Every language needs and has these kinds of expressions. This happens to be one of the more commonly used ones in English -- and particularly in the United States.

Language & Humanities, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

Language & Humanities, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.