God Save the Mark.

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.


  1. To me it sounds like an indignant “For Heaven’s sake!”, for example in the Red Planet citation.

  2. No, it’s never indignant — it is, as the OED says, a jokey/ironic apology for mentioning something (why are we even talking about Marmontel/Cubists/Bulwer-Lytton??).

  3. ‘Indignant’ is just my grumpy old git side showing. WHY are we talking about … 🙂

  4. I’ve always associated it with the eponymous Donald E. Westlake novel & so figured it was a semi-ironic lament for a sucker. Very interested to see how it goes back to the midwife thing. Cheers.

  5. D. B. Wyndham Lewis used “haud us and save us!” to mean approximately the same thing, upon finding one Jehan l’Ecosse listed among the thieves of 15th century Paris.

  6. Gollum (the less nassssty version in The Hobbit) says “Bless us and splash us!”

  7. Eugene Doherty says

    interesting, I took it from my granny and she always used it after talking about someone simple or “touched” so I always assumed it meant “bless them”

  8. Larry James says

    My mother used to say that whenever she saw someone who was mentally challenged or a little person.
    She told me that her mother used to say it. I asked her what it meant but her answer showed me that she just didn’t know.
    The omen thing; that sounds right. It could have been said as a blessing on the one affected in order to avoid any sort of evilness connected with the one bearing the abnormality. I’ve tried to put this as nicely as possible. It’s not my belief, it’s one from 100 years ago, very backward thinking. I’m just attempting to explain it in couched terms.
    Thank you for understanding.

  9. Peadar Ó'Colmain says

    Ha! that demolishes my theory that it was a reference to the German Currency and the hyperinflation of the twenties.

  10. My aunt used this expression, “God bless the Mark” quite a lot and, looking back, I think it was used to express nostalgia. I am intrigued that it was used in Elizabethan times. There are or were many words and expressions used in rural Ireland, both by the descendants of Elizabethan settlers and the native Irish which survived until recently whilst they have largely died out in Britain.

  11. wow! the english “lehavdl”!

    (and do i hear a “mark of cain” behind it?)

  12. rozele is referring to Yiddish להבֿדיל ‘excuse the comparison’ (between sacred and profane things).

  13. Trying to isolate the thought behind Hotspur using it.

    for he made me mad to see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet and talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman of guns and drums and wounds,—God save the mark!—

    Seems purely exclamatory here.

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    From R&J Act III Scene 2

    I saw the wound, I saw it with mine eyes,—
    God save the mark!—here on his manly breast:
    A piteous corse, a bloody piteous corse;
    Pale, pale as ashes, all bedaub’d in blood,
    All in gore-blood; I swounded at the sight.

    So S may use this as a curse to use about a horrible or disturbing vision, i.e. “stop this from afflicting me” – or alternately “I am describing what I saw, and it discombobulated me (at least partly comically in Hotspur’s case)”

  15. Paul Turpin says

    Well, having read all this I’m still mo wiser about its precise meaning!

  16. The meaning is in the original post. To refresh your memory: “used chiefly in writing to apologize (freq. ironically) for a preceding or following word or phrase.”

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