In my last post, in a bit of japery I referred to “Pushkin and — God save the mark! — Bulwer-Lytton”; it occurred to me to wonder about the origin of that phrase, and here’s what the OED (s.v. mark, updated 2000) has to say:
11. (God) bless (also save) the mark and variants: an exclamatory phrase, prob. originally serving as a formula to avert an evil omen, and hence used by way of apology when something horrible, indecent, or profane has been mentioned. Now used chiefly in writing to apologize (freq. ironically) for a preceding or following word or phrase.
[The phrase was apparently formerly used by midwives at the birth of a child bearing a birthmark (see W. A. Henderson in N. & Q. (1895) 8th Ser. 7 373); and this may possibly be the original use (compare quot. a1625). However, the meaning of mark in the expression may originally have been ‘sign’ or ‘omen’ (compare sense 9a). There is no foundation in the statement of E. C. Brewer Dict. Phr. & Fable (1870) 790/2, copied in some dictionaries, that the phrase was originally used by archers.]
1593 T. Churchyard Challenge 240 Browne and blacke I was God blesse the marke: Who cals me faire dooth scarce know Cheese from chalke.
1598 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 1 i. iii. 55 To see him..talke so like a waiting gentlewoman, Of guns, and drums, and wounds, God saue the mark.
a1616 Shakespeare Othello (1622) i. i. 32 He in good time, must his Leiutenant be, And I, God blesse the marke, his Worships Ancient.
a1625 J. Fletcher Noble Gentleman iv. iv, in F. Beaumont & J. Fletcher Comedies & Trag. (1647) sig. Ff/2, Indeed he was Just such another coxcomb as your husband, God blesse the mark and every good mans childe!
1761 L. Sterne Life Tristram Shandy III. xxxiii. 151 My father..had no more nose, my dear, saving the mark, than there is upon the back of my hand.
1820 W. Irving Legend Sleepy Hollow in Sketch Bk. vi. 93 The motherly tea-pot sending up its clouds of vapour from the midst—Heaven bless the mark!
1849 G. P. R. James Woodman I. ii. 32 God save the mark that I should give the name of king to one of his kindred.
1902 W. James Varieties Relig. Experience 204 (note) The crisis of apathetic melancholy..from which he emerged by the reading of Marmontel’s Memoirs (Heaven save the mark!) and Wordsworth’s poetry.
1917 W. J. Locke Red Planet x. 113 All their talk was of Hauptmann and Sudermann..and in art—Heaven save the mark—the Cubist school.
1977 Evening Telegram (St. John’s, Newfoundland) 3 Dec. 46 ‘Well gentlemen,’ sez I, ‘God bless the mark, but this is really a chilly day.’
1994 Amer. Scholar Winter 135/1 Today, anyone who reads a daily newspaper or, God save the mark, even watches television news in a state at least bordering on consciousness is inured to..present-day observations.
I guess I’d seen the “God bless the mark” version occasionally, but I didn’t realize it was the original one, and I certainly had no idea about the midwife thing.