It interests me how the meaning of a phrase can change over time. Particularly pertinent for me is the phrase “for Christ’s sake!”

Today it’s used a curse (cuss, swearword), an expression of frustration and anger; arguably the one that carries most feeling. English people might utter “Gordon Bennett!” at a lesser irritation [1].

How did this come about? Originally it was a plea; to do something, or not to do it, to honour that person because of something they had done or were going to do; because of who they were; because of an office they held.

Tradition tells that gladiatorial combat in the Roman Empire was ended because of a Christian monk named Telemachus. If I recall the tale correctly, he lived in a small rural community, tending the garden. One day God said to him, “Go to Rome”.

Telemachus not want to go, which isn’t astonishing considering that Imperial Rome has been described, among other things, as the sewer of the universe where the scum from all corners of the Empire gathered; nevertheless, he went. On the day he arrived a festival was held, and he was carried along by the crowd like a twig on a river. The river flowed into the Coliseum. Watching two gladiators fight, he was horrified. He ran onto the arena and stood between them holding out his arms and crying, “For the love of Christ, stop!” [2] Clearly he was not swearing but pleading with them not to kill one another.

Not an event that happened every day, the two gladiators looked to the emperor for direction. The emperor turned his thumb down. Both gladiators speared Telemachus, who died saying once again, “For the love of Christ, stop!” (We could extrapolate this as “For Christ’s sake, stop!”)

Apparently, most of the people in the crowd were so repulsed by the monk’s murder that attendance at the combats dried up.

From a plea to consider Christ as the reason for doing or not doing an action, how has “For Christ’s sake!”, or simply “Christ!” or “Jesus!”, become an exclamation of frustration?

As children grew up and heard their parents or others use the phrase, they didn’t understand its context; that it was a plea. They heard it used in situations when the people who used it had been frustrated in their plans or desires by someone else, and were pleading with that other to act as Jesus would, and thus in a way that would honour Jesus.

Lacking this context, the children would understand it as an outburst caused by the feeling of helplessness and anger born from frustration; and so the words that were originally an impassioned plea have become the strongest curse the western world knows.

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Footnotes

[1] The eponymous gentleman was an Australian officer at Singapore when the British surrendered to the Japanese army. Bennett did not and escaped; so ever since, his name has been used as a swearword for the British.

[2] I sense this means because for their love of Christ rather than Christ’s love for them. In the tale as I read it, “Stop” was “Forebear!” If in Greek, it might have been katechō, “hold back”.

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