A British customer of this blog writes with a query about the phrase “Jesus wept”—not as the shortest verse in the King James Bible (John 11:35), but as an expletive expressing annoyed surprise. It’s a phrase that’s been in use at least since the customer’s childhood, when he heard his father use it, and that was a half-century ago (or, to be honest, a little bit more).
Despite the Biblical injunction against taking the Lord’s name in vain, the name of Jesus Christ (or variants such as “Jesus H. Christ,” “Geez,” “Sheesh,” and “fer Crissakes”) has been used an exclamation by plenty of Christians, as well as others, for centuries, if not millennia. A few examples will more than suffice: “Bi iesus” in Piers Plowman (1377), “By Jhesu” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (ca. 1390), “O Jesu” in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 (1597) and “By Gis” in Hamlet (1601).
“Jesus wept,” as an expletive, is apparently of much later vintage. In James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) Stephen Dedalus exclaims “O weeping God,” and later in the same passage says, “Jesus wept: and no wonder, by Christ.” Whether “Jesus wept” in this case is an interjection or simply a declarative statement may be open to interpretation.
In A Vision of Battlements (1965) Anthony Burgess writes dialogue that clearly uses the phrase as an expression of exasperation: “Oh, Ennis, oh God Almighty, Ennis. What the hell’s got into you these last few weeks? Oh, Jesus wept, what am I going to do with you?”
It is primarily in Great Britain, Australia, and certain parts of Ireland that “Jesus wept” is used in this fashion, but it is also found in works by the American novelist Stephen King. And an American blogger recalls that when his grandmother would trip on something, she would cry out, “Jesus wept, Moses crept, and Peter went a-fishin’!”.
Like Niobe, the lachrymose Bard of Buffalo Bayou has also wept in his time, although he tries not to, since tears falling into his Chardonnay make it taste salty. Instead he vents his emotions in cloying and often incomprehensible rhymes:
Crying when milk’s
Spilt in your tepee
Helps, I presume—
Just like John Wilkes
Booth getting weepy
At Lincoln’s tomb.