ORIGIN AND MEANING OF BEJESUS
An Anglo-Irish alteration of by Jesus, bejesus (also bejasus, bejeezus) is an exclamation used for emphasis or to express surprise.
As stated in the very beginning of Prize Essay on Irishmen, “By Our Own Printer’s Devil”, published in The Sporting Times (London) of Saturday 8th January 1881, bejesus is one of several Irish-English oaths built on the same pattern:
Irishmen is a great people. They says Bedad1, Begorra2, Bejapers3, Bejasus, Betheholypoker4, Bemesowl5, and lots o’ other Be’s.
1 bedad: by dad, or by God
2 begorra: by God
3 bejapers: by Jesus
4 betheholypoker: by the holy poker (according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, holy poker denotes the instrument of punishment used in Purgatory, and also denotes the penis)
5 bemesowl: by my soul
EARLY INSTANCES OF THE EXCLAMATION BEJESUS
The exclamation bejesus originally appeared as two separate words. The earliest instance that I have found is from The Observer (London, England) of Monday 23rd May 1825:
Messrs. John Mahoney and Dennis Sugree were […] charged with having wilfully demolished sundry panes of glass in the windows of the Globe public-house, Hungerford-street, Strand, on Sunday afternoon. John Mahoney and Dennis Sugree are Irishmen by birth, Catholics by profession, and tailors by trade […]. Sunday afternoon, between 4 and 5 o’clock they presented themselves among the watermen at Hungerford Stairs, & called a boat; but the watermen, not liking the looks of their knees and elbows, and seeing, moreover, that they were rather too top-heavy to float comfortably, refused to have anything to do with them. “Go and hang yourselves, my jewels!” said Mr. John Mahoney;—“Be Jasus, I shall pull ye for this!” said Mr. Dennis Sugree.
The second-earliest instance that I have found is from the Vermont Statesman (Castleton, Vermont) of Wednesday 22nd March 1826:
Dr. Blundell, of London, has communicated another successful case of transfusion of blood into the veins. A woman had lost a large quantity of blood after labor; her life was in imminent danger: and, in fact, from all the symptoms, there was no probability that she could live more than three or four hours. The operation was performed without the least difficulty: and as soon as three charges of the syringe, or 6 ounces of blood, had been injected, the woman, who was a native of the sister kingdom, exclaimed, “Be Jasus! I feel as strong as a bull.”
The elements be and Jesus later came to be hyphenated. For example, The Raleigh Register, and North Carolina Gazette (Raleigh, North Carolina) of Saturday 14th October 1848 published a story in which the exclamation used by an Irishman named old Tom Martin is spelt be-Jasus.
The earliest occurrence that I have found of the exclamation as a single word is from one of the “Answers to Correspondents”, in the Marysville Enterprise (Marysville, Kansas) of Saturday 9th February 1867:
“Bejasus.”- – -We think he is a professional dray-driver and lives in Leavenworth. We think so from the fact that we have often heard dray drivers there when engaged in a difficulty call on Bejasus to settle the quarrel.
NOUN USE OF BEJESUS IN PHRASES
The word bejesus is used as a noun in phrases built on the pattern to [verb] the bejesus out of somebody or something, in which the bejesus out of intensifies the action conveyed by the verb—cf. also origin of to [verb] the living daylights out of somebody.
The earliest instance that I have found is from Robert Benchley6’s review of Eugene O’Neill7’s Mourning Becomes Electra, published in The New Yorker (New York City, N.Y.) of Saturday 7th November 1931:
In this tremendous play he gives us not one thing that is new, and he gives us nothing to think about (unless we are just beginning to think), but he does thrill the bejeezus out of us, just as his father8 used to, and that is what we go to the theatre for.
6 Robert Charles Benchley (1889-1945), American drama critic, actor and humorist
7 Eugene Gladstone O’Neill (1888-1953), American playwright
8 James O’Neill (1847-1920), Irish-American actor, best known as the star of a long-running stage adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo
In They Were Expendable (Harcourt, Brace & Company – New York, 1942), an account of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three’s heroic actions during the Philippine campaign early in World War II, the American journalist and author William Lindsay White (1900-73) used the bejesus out of with another verb:
The bombers were to land at Mindanao, gas up, take off, and blow the be-Jesus out of every Jap warship in the region, and meanwhile the convoy of inter-island steamers would start for Bataan, bringing food enough for weeks. Bataan was to be saved after all.
The following use of the bejesus out of is from the column from this Corner, by Miriam W. Flather, in the Nashua Telegraph (Nashua, New Hampshire) of Tuesday 2nd August 1949:
Aug 2—Nobody is edified to see state departments and institutions, affected by budget cuts, attempting to gain public sympathy for their plight by cutting personnel.
Nobody is likely to forget a couple of years ago when Congress most reprehensibly (?) cut the appropriation for the Treasury Department, which turned around and cut the bejesus out of the US Customs Bureau, causing the discharge of a tremendous number of its employes [sic].
The most usual of the phrases built on the pattern to [verb] the bejesus out of somebody or something are:
– to beat the bejesus out of somebody, meaning to give a good hiding to somebody,
– to scare the bejesus out of somebody, meaning to frighten somebody very much.
The former phrase is first recorded in While Rome Burns (Grosset and Dunlap – New York, 1934), by the American author, critic and actor Alexander Humphreys Woollcott (1887-1943), who gave an account of a performance at Memphis, Tennessee, of the comedy duo James Terence Duffy (1889-1939) and Frederick Chase Sweeney (1894-1954), who were both Irish-American:
It seems that the two minds without a single thought were not attuned to the audience that day, which was more than merely unresponsive. Its silence had a kind of malignance. The good people of Memphis appeared actually to resent the antics of these zanies. It was as if They all had come to the theater to think over Their private worries and did not wish to be disturbed. After ten minutes of this congealing experience, Mr. Duffy rose, brushed the dust from his knees, and stepped forward with an ingratiating informality. Shyly he said he just wished to thank Memphis for one of the most heart-warming receptions within his memory as a poor strolling player.
“And now,” he added, his manner changing subtly to the cheerful bustle of a master of ceremonies, “if you will all just remain seated, my partner, Mr. Sweeney, will pass down the aisle with a baseball bat and beat the be-Jesus out of you.”
The earliest occurrence of the latter phrase that I have found is from the column Channing Cope’s Almanac, titled that day Farmers Learning How To Save Soil, published in The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia) of Tuesday 12th October 1948:
There are several ways to convince the average American that it is necessary to save his country’s soil. One method is to scare him. This method, now employed by William Vogt and Fairfield Osborne, was used for years by Louis Bromfield, Chief Hugh Bennett, of the Soil Conservation Service; Jonathan Forman, of Friends of the Land, and others. It was described by Bromfield as the “scare the bejeezus out of ’em” method.