Q From Lee Daniel Quinn in the USA: I thought the question was an easy one — where does the term holy smoke come from? It may be an Americanism because I have heard it all my life. Any ideas?
A A good question, but — as it turns out — one difficult to answer. The expression, as a exclamation, dates from the latter part of the nineteenth century. The first reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is in a book by Rudyard Kipling and his American agent Charles Balestier, The Naulahka, published in 1892. I’ve found several other references at about the same period, all from American works, so it does indeed seem to be of American origin.
I have come across a couple of earlier references, one in a poem by Jean Ingelow from the 1860s:
She never loved me since I went with thee
To sacrifice among the hills; she smelt
The holy smoke, and could no more divine
Till the new moon.
and the OED has this from Sir John Beaumont, dated about 1627: “Who lift to God for us the holy smoke / Of fervent prayers”. The idea here is the old one of a burnt sacrifice or incense being a metaphor for the carrying of one’s prayers up to heaven. There are several such references in the Bible, including the Book of Revelation: “And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand”. But I can’t trace any continuity of usage between the two examples quoted above, nor to the later exclamation. What is certain is that it has nothing to do with the puffs of smoke that appear during the election of a new Pope.
It seems more likely that holy smoke was invented anew as a mock-religious exclamation and mild oath on the model of the older holy Moses (from the 1850s), and holy terror and Holy Joe (both from the 1880s). In turn these probably served as the model for others of similar type that came later, such as holy cow from the early 1940s.