My husband and I were watching Angels and Demons the other night when after witnessing black smoke rise from within the chimney of the Vatican, he said, "That must be where the term 'holy smoke' comes from." When a new Pope is elected after the death of the previous one, black smoke indicates a decision has not been made - white, of course, indicating a new Pope has been elected.
My husband isn't the religious sort, and so I chuckled at his definition and quasi-suffered through the rest of the movie. But three days later, 'holy smoke' is still rolling around in my head. So I decided to look it up.
Turns out, my handsome hubby is right. Well, partially.
There appears to be a couple of explanations on how the term came about. The most common is the answer my husband provided. Another explanation dates back to the nineteenth century, when the term was first used by Rudyard Kipling in his book The Naulahka. And there are other references from literature as well - a poem from the 1860s by Jean Ingelow compares holy smoke to love, and in the Bible, the Book of Revelation quotes: And the smoke of incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand."
But perhaps the most likely explanation is that holy smoke - like "holy cow" and "holy mackerel" was invented as a mock-religious exclamation and mild oath. The word 'holy' is often inserted to strengthen an expression - to express strong emotion, such as great surprise or anger.
Is it any wonder I love research? (Just yesterday, I learned all about embalming....)