While waiting for a downtown traffic signal to turn green, the driver of the pickup truck behind my car started honking her horn repeatedly. I glanced at the signal and noticed it was still red. The pickup’s horn honked again. I reflexively said, “Oh, for Pete’s sake!”
Jonathan, sitting in the passenger seat of the ol’ Camry, asked why I had used such a mild epithet. He said he would have probably used the F-word.
The signal finally turned green, I let out the clutch and proceeded down the street again. I explained that it’s all about conditioning. There are very few times when a person can be crude, but traffic is not one of those times. Many years ago, when I began work in commercial broadcasting, I learned never to curse while anywhere in a broadcasting facility. There were many official penalties levied against radio and television stations if curse words went out over the airwaves.
Had there had been no official penalties, cursing on the air could still get you in very serious trouble with station managers. One of my bosses frequently reminded staffers that we should not use language we would never use around our mothers. He assumed that everyone’s mothers are prim and proper ladies.
Even if an employee wasn’t specifically in a studio with a live mic, why risk the chance of a swear-word getting on the air when a studio door was opened? As a result of this personal conditioning, I don’t feel comfortable swearing and cursing. Using the F-word causes me to cringe. That said, I have used it when accidentally hitting my thumb with a hammer.
Along the way, I conditioned myself to use less explicit oaths that work just as effectively as crude phrases. My all-time favorite to use verbally or in written form is, “Holy Cow”. When it comes to those times when I’m really flustered, “for Pete’s sake” flies out of my mouth.
Use of the idiom about Pete can be traced to the early 20th century, perhaps as late as 1918. It became a popular variation of the older “for the love of Pete”. Meantime, that is a variant of the older oath, “for the love of Mike”. The older oath goes back to the early 1700s as a less blasphemous substitution in place of “for the love of God”.
Jonathan asked the obvious question, “Who are Mike and Pete?”
I don’t know for sure, but popular conjecture claims they are Saint Michael and Saint Peter. There’s one anecdote that the artist, Michelangelo coined “for Pete’s sake” when requesting tithes to fund artwork for Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican–but that notion has been debunked. Michelangelo spoke an Italian dialect. So who would have translated the alleged oath? Why would there be such a gap of its use from the Renaissance until 1918?
Jonathan glanced and smiled at me and then said, “Thank you for teaching me something new for a change.”
I wryly replied, “For Pete’s sake.”