Jeezum Crow

From Max Vasilatos in e-mail to some friends on 6/13/07:

Jeezum Crow Frank, could you work any harder?  Fa free?

I didn’t note the Jeezum Crow at the time, but then it came up in a Facebook posting of hers in October 2010, and I did ask her about it. She was baffled by my query; for her, it was just a familiar euphemism (for Jesus Christ) that she’d used since childhood, and she assumed that everyone knew it. No one had commented on it before.

Two points here: Max’s belief that the expression was long-standing and widespread — I don’t know how long it’s been around (the trail gets faint around the middle of the 20th century), but it certainly isn’t geographically widespread — and the fact that no one seems to have noticed it, as she moved from her childhood in Maine though college at Vassar (in the Hudson Valley of New York), living for some time in the Boston area, and then locating for some years now in San Francisco.

Some facts, gleaned from the Dictionary of American Regional English, Google searches, and discussion on the American Dialect Society mailing list late in October …

Googling quickly pulled up occurrences in Vermont, the North Country of New Hampshire, and New Brunswick, and now nets Maine and Nova Scotia as well. DARE has it for Vermont and northern New York, and the Urban Dictionary (not always, to put it kindly, a reliable source) places it in rural Vermont. So the geographical distribution runs from northern New York through Vermont and northern New Hampshire and on to Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

Jon Lighter (of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang) reported on ADS-L that the only example in his files came from Stephen King’s It (1986). There are other King occurrences, which is no surprise, since King is a Mainer.

Lighter did turn up an apparently authentic British use from a book published in 1972, William Butler’s The Bone House — the other Google Books hits seem to be American — but I haven’t been able to find out anything more about the author or the book.

Variant spellings Jesum crow and Jeesum Crow were then unearthed; there are probably more. Ann Burlingham reported an acquaintance who went to school at SUNY Plattsburgh, and says that there was a band Jeezum Crow there then. Garson O’Toole found a Portland OR band with that name (and a MySpace page), and also a movie listed by Yahoo as being in production:

Jeezum Crow
The story of two brothers and their close friends living in a small town in Vermont and how they are affected by the changing seasons.
Genres: Comedy and Drama
Production Co.: Frickin Decent
Filming Locations: Waitesfield, Vermont, USA, Burlington, Vermont

and also found a record label Jeezum Crow Music.

Larry Horn reported web sites that maintained that the Jeezum crow was the Vermont state bird. Turns out that Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont was widely known as “Jeezum Jim”. And on ADS-L , Michael McKernan reported that

I have also personally heard jeezum in a “by Jesus” taboo-avoidance:  “by jeezum” (and I seem to remember one “by the jeezum”), during my years living in Vermont (1972-2005).

All of this tends to put Vermont at the center of things (though with diffusion in several geographical directions, and perhaps by relocation to other places as well; linguistic usages aren’t tightly bound by geographical boundaries).

Now, why should Max have failed to appreciate the (relative) recency of the usage and its (on the whole) restriction to a relatively small geographical area? Why should she have been subject to the Antiquity Illusion (if you do something yourself, you believe that you always have, and that people in general have done it for a long time) and to the hitherto-unnamed Ubiquity Illusion (if you do something yourself, you believe that everyone does the same)?

The illusions tend to come in opposed pairs — Antiquity as opposed to Recency, Ubiquity as opposed to Locality — and for good reason: they depend on individual people’s experience of particular variants. In the absence of counter-evidence, we take ourselves as the measure of all things; we treat our own experiences as fair samples of the phenomena in question. Even when other possibilities are available, we tend to generalize from our own perceptions, reasoning by anecdote; ordinary people don’t reason like scientists and in fact will often resist expert opinion in favor of their own. Of course, most of the time, there’s no alternative; hardly anyone is in a position to sample the phenomena scientifically, almost all of us are in a state of ignorance, so our perceptions, memories, beliefs, and opinions are all we have to go on. We’re set up to be illuded.

Note the crucial role of counter-evidence. Why didn’t Max get any counter-evidence about jeezum crow, any feedback that this was not what most other people said?

Probably because it’s a euphemistic interjection, and these come in wild profusion, from good gravy/grief! and great guns! for good god! and great god! through W.C. Fields’s Godfrey Daniels! for god damn!, and hundreds more. We’ve come to expect that people are inventive about these expressions and we go with what we see as the intent, recognizing that there can be lots of individual creativity. So most people would just have assumed that Max was being playfully creative, not realizing that the expression was actually dialectal. (And then of course the expression can spread to people outside the core dialect area, to people who admire its sound and flair.)

A few words about the form of the expression. It has two words, each of them transformed by euphemistic substitution, Jeezum for Jesus (replacing an existing word by a phonologically similar nonsense word) and Crow for Christ (replacing an existing word by a phonologically similar existing word that makes no sense in the context). There are a great many parallels for each sort of substitution: for example, heck for hell, frag etc. for fuck of the first sort, and sugar for shit, gravy/grief etc. for god of the second sort. Probably new ones are invented all the time, gol darn it!

Now, Jeezum for Jesus on its own would not be much of a stretch (and indeed does occur, see above), and might have been innovated many times in many places, but Crow for Christ is pretty distant, and seems not to have been been innovated on its own. The combination of the two two looks like an idiosyncratic innovation, which somehow spread by diffusion in a speech community. (On ADS-L, Neal Whitman reported knowing someone in central Ohio about ten years ago who had come up with Jeezo Cow, combining a nonsense deformation of Jeezo for Jesus with the word substitution of cow for Christ seen in holy cow! , but that one seems not to have caught on the way Jeezum Crow did.)

3 Responses to “Jeezum Crow”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    Indeed – if it’s J- C- (let alone Je- Cr-) I know what it’s meant to be and I don’t often actually pay attention to what it really is. In fact, I sometimes think someone’s actually said the taboo word, since what they did say was so transparent…

  2. Jeezamarooni « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] inventive euphemism (see discussion of these in my Jeezum crow posting), which came up in a re-reading of Nicholson Baker’s U and I (see here), twice — first […]

  3. Ann Burlingham Says:

    I am reminded that my father did not allow his daughters to say “geez” (“jeez”?), as he considered it taking the Lord’s name in vain.

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