Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have great expectations…
Q: Hi AWC, I was watching Back to the Future again the other day and I had a question.
A: Is it about going back in time and kissing your mother?
Q: No, it is not.
A: Okay good. Proceed.
Q: My question is about Doc Brown’s favourite saying, “Great Scott!” Where does it come from? Who was Scott and why was he so great?
A: That’s a good question. Do you have any ideas?
Q: Well I think there was a Captain Scott who perished reaching the South Pole – was it related to him?
A: Ah yes, the original frozen franchise. You’re talking about Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who reached the South Pole with his team in January 1912 – only to learn that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten him there by 35 days.
Q: How would you feel?
Q: True. So, who WAS the Scott in question?
A: Despite becoming popular during the 1980s with those Back to the Future movies, the phrase made its debut back in even before the Wild West of the third movie. It was named after an American General named Winfield Scott.
Q: Never heard of him.
A: He was a key player in the Mexican-American war that took place in the 1840s.
Q: Never heard of it!
A: Well it was quite a big deal – because until then, Mexico actually owned California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. After the war, they famously lost Texas and the Rio Grande river instead became their northern border in that region.
Q: And what was so great about Scott?
A: His stature for one. In a century of small-man-syndrome leaders like Napoleon, Scott towered even by today’s standards – at 6 feet 5 inches. He also reportedly weighed more than 300 pounds.
Q: Wide Scott!
A: Indeed. According to folklore, the men in Scott’s command adopted the exclamation “Great Scott!” as a way to reinforce his leadership. It went on to become popular in the latter half of the 1800s and into the 20th century, although had largely been rendered a dusty relic when Doc Brown used it in 1985.
Q: I always thought it would be a British saying – it seems to feel like something the Brits say more.
A: Ahhh, well that might be because there IS an adjacent origin story. This one is a little earlier – from the 1830s and a Scottish author named Sir Walter Scott.
Q: A sir? Well, he MUST have been a great Scot.
A: Haha, yes he was very influential in his day. Although some didn’t think so. In fact, it was a Sydney newspaper reviewing his poem about the 1815 Battle of Waterloo that stated “Unlike great Scott, who fell at Waterloo” – in a witty reference to his bad writing rather than falling in battle.
Q: I guess you had to be there.
A: Yep. Later in the 1800s, poems marking 100 years since Scott’s birth proclaimed “Great Scott!”. At the other end of the spectrum, around the same time Mark Twain wrote of his dislike for Sir Walter Scott’s writing – again using the term “great Scott” but more sarcastically.
Q: Quite the polarising figure.
A: No, that was Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Keep up.
Q: Oh ha ha. So which of these versions is the correct one? The American general or the Scottish writer?
A: It’s likely they both are – and over time, the phrase just took root and didn’t really care about who planted it. There’s even a third theory about “Great Scott!” simply being a nice way of saying “Great God!” in a curse-like way – something you might have yelled if you stubbed your toe.
Q: It’s quite funny that when Doc Brown goes back to 1885 in the third Back to the Future movie, his out-of-date phrase was then at the height of popularity!
A: Yes, and it’s likely that without that film character, it would have remained on the dusty shelf of archaic phrases for surprise, along with “By gum!” or “Crumbs!”.
Q: Okay, that’s enough history for one day. Time to get back to the future.
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