Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.






Comments are OPEN.

We deeply appreciate the erudition and energy of our commenters. Your comments frequently make an invaluable contribution to the story of words and phrases in everyday usage over many years.

Please note that comments are moderated, and will sometimes take a few days to appear.



shameless pleading





Gee willikers

Grid willing, of course.

Dear Word Detective: I recently ran across, though not with my car, your explanation of “criminy,” a word I’ve used since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Not being into the whole brevity thing these days I prefer crime in Italy while contemplating youth in Asia. Interesting that “criminy” is a workaround for “Christ” as so many words are. You included “gosh” and “gee” as euphemisms for “God.” So I started wondering where “gee willikers” comes from. Who or what is Willikers, and is his first name George? — Bernie.

Hmm. I’m not sure I understand your second sentence, but that’s OK. I haven’t really understood much of what’s going on in the world since about fifteen years ago. Most of my social interactions these days seem to consist of smiling and nodding while I back towards the exit. I’ve also found that things go best if you avoid sudden moves, keep your head down and never stand in front of an open window or sit with your back to the door.

Of course, such precautions won’t help any of us evade the attention of whatever deity floats your particular boat, which raises the question of why people have put so much energy into coming up with what linguists call “minced oaths,” e.g., “gee,” “gosh,” golly,” “ciminy,” “gosh darn it,” “gee willikers” and so on ad-nearly-infinitum. “Mince” (from the Old French “mincier”) means “to chop into small pieces,” of course, but since the 16th century it has also been used to mean “to make light of a matter” or “to minimize or lessen” something. To “mince one’s words” is to restrain oneself and use polite language, so to “mince” an oath is to neuter it into a (supposedly) inoffensive euphemism. Most major religions seem to have a prohibition against invoking the Big Cheese’s name to denigrate your brother-in-law, so many minced oaths purportedly aim to avoid celestial censure. But since any deity worth his or her salt knows what you’re really thinking, that “gosh” and “golly” are actually purely for the comfort of your listeners.

The “gee” in “gee willikers,” which is a US invention, is a minced oath for “Jesus,” on a par with “gee,” “jeeze” and “gee whiz.” “Gee” itself first appeared in the US, first found in print in 1895, which seems remarkably recent. (The “first found in print” dates of all such words are, of course, somewhat dubious indicators of their true age, because many publications in the 18th and 19th centuries would probably have been reluctant to print even the neutered form of such oaths.) According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the form “jeeze” (or “jeez”) is an even more recent arrival in print, first appearing in 1923.

“Gee willikers” first appeared in print in the mid-19th century in the form “jewhilliken,” but the form “geewillikin” seems to have been the most popular early form. Like its relatives “gee,” “jeepers,” “jeeze,” et al., it’s primarily an interjection expressing surprise or amazement, rather than serious anger or frustration. The source and meaning of the “willikers” or “williken” component is, unfortunately, unknown, and will probably remain a mystery. One theory is that “geewillikens” was originally a substitution for “Jerusalem!” as an expression of surprise, which was indeed popular in the mid-19th century (“Jee-roosalem! You can’t stand there; the police won’t allow it,” 1898). This theory was popular at the time when “geewillikn” (or “jewhilliken”) itself first appeared (“‘Jerusalem!,’ a favorite New England exclamation. … In the West it is, as usual, improved to suit the louder taste of the people, and becomes “Jewhillikin,'” Americanisms, 1872). Interestingly, it seems likely that “gee whiz,” which appeared at about the same time, originated as a simplified form of “geewillikins” or “gee willikers.”

If “gee willikers” does indeed hark back to “Jerusalem,” then “gee whiz” and similar forms invoke both Jesus and Jerusalem. Of course, “Jerusalem!” as an exclamation might itself have started as a minced oath of “Jesus!”

14 comments to Gee willikers

  • Maybe your questioner was contemplating euthanasia of somebody, “youth in Asia” being a phonetic version. If so, then “crime in Italy” is probably in the same category, though even when I say it out loud it doesn’t sound to me like anything except “crime in Italy.”

  • Rex Fouch

    “Criminitly!” or “criminitlies!” (the first i is long, penult accented) was often used as an expression of wonder or exasperation on our elementary school play grounds. In fact, I heard this form for years before I heard the term “criminy.”

  • Terry

    Holy Moses. Dang!

  • Sir Elfrid "Pip" Pettìfòg VI, Esquire

    Pompous remark
    Followed by some witty banter with a dryer than burnt crumpets English style “humor”
    (In an English accent using prentiously large words to establish intellectual superiority)

    Sir Elfrid “Pip” Pettìfòg VI, Esquire

  • Anne

    Dia duhit is Irish for God be with you, a greeting that would sound similar to gee will inkers.

  • Jessie

    In The Times (of London) on Jan 4 2016 an article about Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons, was published (“Swallows and Amazons sails into a Norfolk buster over language” – page 16) where the phrase “gee whilikins” is noted to be of British origin, specifically from Norfolk dialect. It is noted as a swear word.

  • It is derived from IRISH PEOPLE, IRISH AMERICANs in NEW YORK, and their native language, Gaelic/ Irish.
    Dia = God, pronounced Jee-a
    Thoilleachas = Will, pronounced Willukus,
    SO, Verbally pronounced Jee-a Willukus
    With God’s Will.. Gee Willakers
    Again when people exclaim Jeez! derives from Dia, pronounced Jee-a
    Irish/Gaelic for God, GOD! JEEZ!
    We don’t normally exclaim “Gee whiz” or “Gee whilikers” anymore. We associate such talk with a classic time in New York, when Irish Gaelic was the secret language of the slums, an Irish Gaelic word which means ‘s slom é, or “it’s bleak.” In the slums it was common to hear Irish people say Dia Thoilleachas, Gee Hillukus, which became Gee Whilikers, and means the “will of God.” “Gee” is the approximate pronunciation of Dia, or the Irish word for God. “Holy cow” means Holy Cathú or Holy Cahoo or Holy Grief. “Darn” is another Gaelic exclamation. In Irish you say daithairne ort, which means, “darn on you” or “misfortune on you.” Gee whiz comes from Dia Uas or Geeuh Woous which means “noble god.”

  • So, when I read the part about it may having been derived from “Jee-roosalem!”, here were my thoughts: firstly, I can TOTALLY imagine people saying that, maybe in a sort of attempt to be a little funny and ridiculous. And the relationship between “jee-roosalem!” And “gee wilikers!” Immediately made me think of something.

    When Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote poems about cats that were later turned into Cats! The Musical, there are two terms used in the poetry that are not english words and they are “Jellical” and “pollical”. Jellical cats and pollical puppies.

    What that had come from was his little niece(?) who had been playing around and maybe he had been telling her a story and she expressed herself, trying to say “poor little puppies” coming out “pollical” puppies, and “dear little cats” to “jellical” cats.

    So I’d love to imagine a father and his daughter and he would often use the words “jee-rooselum!” around her so when she begun to speak, she mispronounced it as “gee wilikers!” And he thought it was lovely so he started to use that instead and it caught on.


  • Jack Kapica

    So, when Donna says that “Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote poems about cats that were later turned into Cats! The Musical,” I wonder what happened to T.S. Eliot. Has he been pushed aside by a generation that can’t remember anything before the stage musical?

    Kind of makes you wonder about the rest of her speculations.

  • Thank you so very much for your scholarship here. Read it all and it’s very neat. Thank you again for your consideration.
    P.S. That second sentence comes off as very curious, doesn’t it? Asian youth and … Would be curious to know the author’s context. H-m-m …?

  • Tina

    Love all the thinking and reminiscing here. And thank you for the T.S. Eliot correction. I am younger and I DO think so much is being lost and forgotten. I had to leave a note on Bernie’s 2nd sentence. Simply a play on words as Time Marches On, where Old Age sees ‘Youth in Asia’ (yes, euthanasia) as the only ‘choice’ left in life as we look back on our own Youthful Days, remembering what we said back along our way (crime-in-AL-ity!) said as almost a musical 5h range for emphasis. I can easily see where a neighborhood/culture swapped out IT-aly for AL-ity. I grew up outside of Portland, OR btw, an entire continent’s length away from NYC. Maybe it’s from Li’l Rascals?

  • Tina

    Oh, and of course euthanasia is criminal. I very much enjoy that sentence, actually.

Leave a Reply to Steve Dunham Cancel reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

by Subscribing.


Follow us on Twitter!




Makes a great gift! Click cover for more.

400+ pages of science questions answered and explained for kids -- and adults!