What Does For Pete’s Sake Mean?

Have you ever heard someone remark, “For Pete’s sake!”? Did you know what they meant? Wonder who Pete was, and what on earth he had to do with anything?! Read on to learn about this common idiomatic expression.

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What Does For Pete’s Sake Mean?

The phrase for Pete’s sake is used to express frustration, annoyance, anger, or surprise. Grammatically speaking, in terms of parts of speech, this saying is an interjection. Interjections are words or phrases that convey a sudden, spontaneous feeling or reaction. These words and phrases are, as their name indicates, typically “thrown” in between sentences or thoughts. They’re used in exclamation (forceful expression), and thus very often end in an exclamation point, although they don’t have to.

Here are some example sentences using the phrase for Pete’s sake

  • Hurry up! For Pete’s sake, you’ve been getting ready to leave the house for an hour already, and we have to go!
  • For Pete’s sake! You scared me half to death jumping out at me like that. 
  • Oh for Pete’s sake! I can’t keep having this conversation with you. We’re going around and around in circles arguing, and we’re never going to agree. 
  • I just cleaned the kitchen and now you’re in there making a snack and dirtying it all up again. Get out of there, for Pete’s sake! 
  • For Pete’s sake, Mom! You recorded over all my TV shows on the DVR!

As you can see from these examples, there’s no particular rule about where, exactly, to throw in an interjection when speaking or writing. For Pete’s sake and other interjections can come before or after a sentence, or they can even stand alone.

You may also hear the similar expressions in the name of Pete, for the love of Pete, and for the love of Mike. They mean the same thing and are used in the same way as for Pete’s sake

Who Is Pete? And Why Do We Say For Pete’s Sake?

This may come as a disappointment, but there isn’t a particular Pete that inspired this phrase—at least, not that we can be sure of; more in a minute. (This is also the case for the common saying no way, Jose!

The phrase is what’s known as a mild oath or a minced oath, a euphemistic expression created by substituting or otherwise changing a profane or blasphemous portion of an original saying to make it less offensive. In other words, it’s a way to swear, in a sense, without being too vulgar (like saying shoot, fudge, gosh, heck, and darn).

In the case of for Pete’s sake, Pete is a replacement for Christ or God in the similarly well-known expressions for Christ’s sake and for God’s sake (and in for the love of God and for the love of Christ); it can also be seen as a substitution for a curse word, as profanities are sometimes used in place of Christ or God as well. All of these variations have the same meaning and are used in the same manner, as discussed above.

Up until the 20th century, for Christ’s sake wasn’t used to express frustration, irritation, or anger, and wasn’t seen as a vulgar utterance. Rather, it was simply said in a religious context, such as during prayer, and meant in a holy way. It became “unholy,” it appears, sometime in the early 1900s, most likely simply because of the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain; since it was taboo to do so outside of a religious context, the phrase began being purposefully used profanely.

It’s thought this usage stuck, but for those who needed to express annoyance or surprise and didn’t want to use Christ or God, they substituted Pete. Why Pete and not Ben or Jim or Tim? One theory holds that to keep a religious sentiment but not be too blasphemous, Pete was chosen for St. Peter. Another theory suggests that the expression for pity’s sake was already in use, with Pete a similar-sounding stand-in for that word.

There’s a Holiday for That?!

Yep, “For Pete’s Sake Day” occurs annually on February 26th. The made-up holiday came about more than 20 years ago, and is the brainchild of a husband and wife duo, Tom and Ruth Roy. How you celebrate is up to you, but it should, of course, include the phrase somehow. Shout it from the rooftop, use it as a hashtag… the options are endless!

Understanding Idioms

For Pete’s sake is an idiom. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Just taken as is, literally, you’d understand the phrase for Pete’s sake to mean that someone was acting on behalf of Pete, doing something for his benefit in some way. But, you now know there actually isn’t a Pete, and that the saying is used to express anger, exasperation, or shock and amazement.

Discover the meanings and origins of many more of the English language’s most fascinating idioms.

Synonyms for For Pete’s Sake

There are many similar expressions you can use when you want to express frustration and annoyance or surprise. The examples below are also considered euphemistic expressions, or minced oaths or mild oaths, in that they are variants of for Christ’s sake and for God’s sake.

  • For goodness’ sake
  • For heaven’s sake
  • For pity’s sake
  • For mercy’s sake

Although not as similar, you can also use the phrase for crying out loud when you’re frustrated or irritated. 

Summary

Use the idiomatic phrase for Pete’s sake when you want to share that you’re either annoyed or exasperated, angry, or surprised. The expression is what is known as a minced oath or euphemism. It’s a less-offensive variant on the phrases for God’s sake and for Christ’s sake, which can be seen as profane or vulgar. Language experts aren’t exactly sure how Pete came to be used as a substitute for Christ or God, and it seems throughout history at least one other name, Mike, has been used similarly.