What's the meaning of the phrase 'Jeepers-creepers'?
'Jeepers-creepers' is used as an expression of feeling or emotion, especially surprise, excitement, dismay, or exasperation. It is also used for emphasis.
What's the origin of the phrase 'Jeepers-creepers'?
It is a variant of the earlier (19th century) slang term 'jeez', which is a euphemistic shortening of 'Jesus'. Jeepers-creepers is a form of 'Jesus Christ'.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that 'jeez' and 'jeepers-creepers' originated in the USA. The exclamations "Jeepers!", "By jeepers" and "Jumpin' jeepers" were also used synonymously from the 1920s onward.
The first use of a form of 'jeepers-creepers' that I know of in print is in the American historical writer Walter Edmonds' novel Rome Haul, 1929:
Jeepers Cripus! How can they expect us to help a marshal if he don't let us know who he is?
The take up of the expression by the US public was helped along by Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. In 1935 Henry Fonda made the first of his many films - The Farmer Takes a Wife. The screenplay was written by Walter Edmonds. Here's part of a review of the film from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 1935:
When young Henry Fonda leaps up with his tenth "Jeepers Creepers," one feels that these simple folk are all too simple.
Not exactly a rave review but the film did have an effect on the songwriter Johnny Mercer. When the lyrics of a song of his was nominated for an Oscar he recalled its inspiration:
My wife and I went to see a movie one night... and Henry Fonda played a farm boy in it. Something impressed him, and he said, "Jeepers creepers," and that just rang a little bell in my head, and I wrote it down when I got out of the movie.
The resulting song was the highly successful Jeepers Creepers, 1938:
Jeepers, creepers... where'd ya get them peepers?
Jeepers, creepers... where'd ya get those eyes?
Gosh oh, git up... how'd they get so lit up?
Gosh oh, gee oh... how'd they get that size?
The movie and song propelled the expression 'jeepers-creepers' into the public consciousness in 1938. Soon after that it appears hundreds of times in US newspapers and literature.
It may well be that Walter Edmonds coined the expression 'jeepers-creepers' - I certainly can't find any earlier use of it than his. If so we can thank him for that and Johnny Mercer for bringing it to wider attention. A later surge in use of the phrase came in 2001 with the release of the film Jeepers Creepers and later its sequels.
The ups and downs of the expression in the language are shown by this graph of a search of Google Books for the uses in books over time. Nothing before the 1930s, then a peak following the song and another peak following the movie.