WASHINGTON -- “Oh, my God!”
The expression, once considered taboo in polite conversation, has become as commonplace as “That’s cool” or “See you later” in American parlance. The acronym, OMG, is nearly as ubiquitous. Online room-chatters rely on it, so do text-messagers. The search engine Yahoo now uses OMG as the name of a gossip alert service.
It’s a sign of a free-speech society, right? Say what you want when you want. But for many, the omnipresent phrase sounds like a sinful swipe at the Almighty. Or at least another iceberg of disrespect cracking away from the icecap of civility.
Rosie Brecevic catches herself mid-sentence and says, instead, “Oh, my gosh!”
In Washington for the holidays, the kindergarten teacher from Colorado Springs, Colo., is taking a break from shopping at the Pentagon City mall. “You try to pick a better way to say it,” she says, especially this time of year and “in front of the little children.”
Vera Abel, at work in a boutique here, says she can’t imagine anyone ever uttering the phrase. As she moves merchandise from spot to spot, she invokes one of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not call the name of your Lord God in vain.”
The Rev. Patrick Gray agrees with Brecevic and Abel. Curate of the Church of the Advent in Boston, Gray preached a sermon on the subject earlier this year. He exhorted his flock: “There’s one thing, or type of thing, that you’ll never hear me say. And for some reason, it still makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable when I hear someone else do it. If I learned anything in my Baptist upbringing, it’s that you never, ever say, ‘Oh, my God!’ in casual conversation.” He finds other words.
But others, such as Brian Gibson, don’t see a need to hold back. Playing with his son at a park in Langley, Va., Gibson says, “I always say ‘Oh, my God!’ ” He’s aware that the phrase occasionally rubs people the wrong way. “Some people are more religious than others.”
It’s impossible to muddle through a day without hearing someone -- even on the public airwaves -- call on a higher being for a lower purpose. Just recently:
* Hannah Storm cried out, “Oh, my God!” during her final telecast as a co-host of “The Early Show” on CBS.
* Defensive tackle Warren Sapp said this about legendary NFL quarterback Brett Favre: “Oh, my God. I want to know what he’s drinking and eating.”
* Charles Gibson said “Oh, my God” while interviewing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
On Yahoo, there’s a spirited debate about the name of the new OMG service on one of the message boards. A user writes: “This is taking the Lord’s name in vain, and while I’m fairly certain you could care less about that, I can no longer support Yahoo if they insist on keeping this OMG product. It shows the height of insensitivity to people of faith.”
To which another user replies: “Lighten up, it’s just an instant-messaging phrase. If you find that kind of thing offensive, you should unplug your ethernet cable right now and stay off the Internet.”
And then someone makes the point: “There is no doubt what the OMG stands for. Every Christian should be outraged that the name of the Lord is used with such disrespect. The point is that people use his name as an insignificant figure of speech.”
Officially, Yahoo avoids the conflict altogether. “The name ‘OMG’ is derived from IM speak and means ‘wow!’ ” says company representative Carrie Davis.
Stanley Hauerwas, a religion professor at Duke Divinity School, takes a different slant. He has been known to liberally salt his everyday speech with profanities. Lingua Franca magazine once called him “a foul-mouthed theologian.” He says that when he hears people say “Oh, my God,” “It’s a cry not of profanity or vulgarity. It usually has the grammar of a lament. You’d have to outlaw the Psalms if you wanted to do away with laments.”
Timothy Jay, author of “Cursing in America” and “Why We Curse,” says that according to his research, “ ‘Oh, my God’ is in the top 10 of expletives. It is used five times as much by women as by men.”
Oddly enough, Jay says, research has also shown that “Oh, my God” is often a euphemism for something else.
Hauerwas agrees: “Instead of ‘Oh, my God,’ I prefer ‘Oh . . . .’ ”
In fact, our culture is more tolerant of profanities than obscenities. The Federal Communications Commission, for example, draws distinctions between profane language -- traditionally defined as irreverence toward God -- and obscene material -- defined by the FCC as material that describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way.
Most profanities and vulgarities are allowed on the air at certain times of day, but obscenities are not.
In many societies throughout history, it has been taboo to speak the name of God. In Christendom, euphemisms -- such as “zounds” (God’s wounds), “golly” (God’s body) and “gosh” -- evolved. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “gosh” as a “mincing pronunciation of God.”
Historically, sanctions against certain expressions “focused mainly on religion,” Jay says. “People were punished for depravity because they said something scurrilous about the church.”
Over time in the United States, authorities gave up on the prevention of anti-church epithets, Jay says. A major shift in emphasis came in the late 1960s, when the Motion Picture Assn. of America began rating movies. Television and radio followed suit.
These days lawmakers are focused on prohibiting sexual and biological word-darts (George Carlin’s seven dirty words) and hateful epithets.
Taking the Lord’s name in vain was denounced again this year by the Vatican, but here in America some religious institutions are softening their stances. Take St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic School in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich. The principal, Sister Kathy Avery, recently read to students a list of words that are unacceptable on the school’s playground.
Asked if the phrase “Oh, my God!” is on Avery’s list, a school employee says, “We don’t encourage that, but it’s not on Sister Kathy’s list of swear words.”
The first written record of the word “God” in English, according to the OED, is from the 9th century. “Gosh” enters the lexicon 900 years later. In 1804, one writer observed that “by gosh” is the “most elegant and classical oath imaginable.”
And so there are two kinds of people in the world: those who say “Oh, my God!” and those who say something else. Even atheists have been known to cry “Oh, my God!” on occasion.
“Sure!” says Eric Mintz, webmaster of the Ask an Atheist website. “I say it all the time.”