For Pete’s Sake—Who Is Pete?

‘For Pete’s sake’ originated around the early 20th century, but the Pete in question may have lived long before that.

There’s no shortage of theories.
There’s no shortage of theories. / Tetra Images/Getty Images

When it comes to devising ways to convey outrage or frustration without offending any delicate and/or pious ears, human creativity knows no bounds. There’s 30 Rock’s “Blurgh,” Castle’s “Shut the front door,” and other fictional TV curses. There are also countless historical curses that we should definitely bring back, from “Bejabbers!” to “By St. Boogar and all the saints at the backside door of purgatory!”

Compared to those colorful examples, for Pete’s sake—a milder version of for God’s sake or for Christ’s sake that doesn’t violate any of the Ten Commandments—sounds a little dull. But it does carry a certain element of mystery: Who the heck is Pete?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first written instance of for Pete’s sake is from 1903, with for the love of Pete appearing around the same time. By that point, as NPR’s Michigan Radio reports, for the love of Mike had already been in the English lexicon. Since Mike is thought to have been a nod to St. Michael—and the phrases clearly have a religious connection—some have suggested that the mononymous Pete is really St. Peter.

But without any actual evidence to support that conclusion, it’s also possible that Pete wasn’t a person at all. For pity’s sake has been around since the 17th century; and its predecessor, for pity, dates all the way back to the 15th century. As Michael Quinion pointed out on his World Wide Words blog, clever cursers may have influenced by Pete sounding like pity. Pete’s sake sounds even more like peace sake—a phrase that popped up at various times over the centuries.

In short, we can’t be sure who Pete was, if he was anyone. So feel free to pick your favorite Pete and dedicate your curse to him.

A version of this story ran in 2021; it has been updated for 2023.

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