My God

22 Jun 2008
欧,MY GOD!

It’s Euro Cup time, and as soccer fans, the Chinese are loving it. This punny headline caught my eye: “,MY GOD!” is a character most often used to mean “Europe,” but it sounds like the English interjection “oh.” “Euro Cup” in Chinese is 欧洲杯.

This headline took me back to my English teaching days and an issue I faced frequently back then. It bothered me when my Chinese students said “oh my God” in English. It’s not an uncommon expression, and as a fair translation of the Chinese exclamation “(我的天哪!” its use came to them easily. So what was the problem?

Well, raised in a traditional Catholic family, I had been taught not to use God’s name in vain. There was a commandment expressly forbidding this linguistic behavior, and it wasn’t even #10, but #2, way ahead of more obvious sins like stealing and killing.

I learned pretty quickly that most people (Christian or not) didn’t adhere to this commandment. I always thought it was interesting… it was a habit that was pretty easy not to get into, but almost everyone did, ostensibly because it was defined as a sin by Judeo-Christian dogma. And then the people that didn’t openly violate the second commandment still used obvious substitutes, like “geez” and “gosh.” This kind of behavior struck me as very similar to adolescent rebellion (in both its strong and weak forms), but on a sociolinguistic scale. It was also interesting to me as an example of a chicken-egg cultural phenomenon.

So I had perspective on the whole “taking God’s name in vain” thing, and I had no real problem with other English-speakers’ “my God” exclamations. I never imposed my own beliefs on other people; I just didn’t use the expression myself.

With my Chinese students, however, it was different. These were students with no Judeo-Christian cultural background. They weren’t willfully violating a commandment of a foreign god; they were simply using the language they had learned in a textbook. I recognized this, but I felt they should be aware of the cultural implications. I never told them not to say “oh my God,” but I taught them what the Judeo-Christian second commandment taught, and pointed out that they would never hear me use that expression. They needed to know this, because while I was perhaps not representative of the average native English speaker, I was not a total anomaly. Some people are actually offended by the phrase “oh my God,” and I didn’t want my students to be completely confounded if it ever happened to them. More important, I wanted my students to appreciate this real-life example of culture’s grip on language which their education up to that point had never touched upon.

Unsurprisingly, some students took my point to heart as a significant cultural issue, while others brushed it off.

This “oh my God” issue led me to consider its parallel in Chinese: is saying 天哪 in Chinese a violation of the second commandment? I asked a devout Catholic Chinese friend about this. She gave me a pained look, revealing that I had just opened a can of worms with which she was well acquainted. My Chinese wasn’t good enough at the time to understand everything that she said, but the answer she gave me was something like, “maybe, sometimes.

Ah, there are times when questions of religion and language make one long for simpler pursuits… Like watching a soccer game.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Most Japanese people are familiar with the phrase “oh my God” as well, and use it equally ignorantly of the implications. This doesn’t bother me at all since I’m an atheist.

    But I’ve always been curious: Isn’t the actual name of the Judeo-Christian God “Yahweh?” If so, wouldn’t “God” just be a title, like “King?” If so, it doesn’t seem to me like it should be a big deal to say the word “God,” “in vain.” But I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about it.

    Another tidbit about the Japanese side of this issue: The word generally translated as “God” is 神様 (kami sama) and originally (and still does, depending on context) refer to the Shinto concept of “gods” or “spirits” that are the souls of one’s ancestors, and are held to dwell in natural objects like rocks, mountains, trees, etc. There are no taboos regarding the use of this word at all in Japanese.

  2. Rules are only a means to an end, so if it’s a bad rule then look behind it and see why the rule was made in the first place. Then fix the rule.

  3. My first year I had a year 1 student who kept saying it. It’s difficult not to laugh when it’s coming out of a cute little 7-year-old who can’t speak in complete sentences. I managed to get her to stop saying it. I also managed to get a few students to start saying “D’oh!” and “Aw, nuts.”

  4. amake,

    That’s one funny thing about saying “oh my God”… priests and atheists alike use it (although not all of either group, obviously)!

    Re: Japanese, that ties back into my point of how some elements of language are so inextricably ties to culture. Good example!

  5. Micah,

    Oh, OK. That sounds easy! 🙂

  6. ChinaMatt,

    Yeah, issues of religion totally aside, you sound like a moron if you say “oh my God” all the time. Nice job.

  7. Sometimes the language we use (and even the accent we say it in) marks us as members of a certain group. But if non-members use the same language, it may confuse or even offend. Invoking the name of the Christian God (whether blasphemously or not) implies that you are a member of a Christian culture. On a subconscious level, I certainly find the usage which John is talking about somewhat awkward or distasteful…I would feel the same about a tourist in Australia injecting “Aussie slang” into their speech.

    Swan’s “Practical English Usage”, which is aimed at learners of English as a second language, cautions learners about the use of taboo words, including religious ones, and I think most experienced TEFL teachers would take the same stance. So I would say that if Chinese textbooks teach the expression “Oh my God” without any notes about usage, then it amounts to a lack of sensitivity on the part of the textbook author, although probably understandable given that they probably have little experience with faith communities of any kind.

  8. There are much worse English expressions that take the Lord’s name in vain. Here’s one common one, according to the Urban Dictionary:

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=jesus+titty+fucking+christ

    Mixing sexual references with religious ones is not limited to English. I think this happens in Chinese, although I don’t know any of the expressions (nor do I care to learn them).

  9. It’s the first time I hear that “my god” may be in violation of that commandment, but maybe it is a language difference. I was also raised in a Catholic environment, and everybody used the French version of this (“mon Dieu”) without any apparent implications.

    However one of the biggest swear word in French is “nom de dieu” (“name of god”), and that is the one that get twisted into “nom de bleu”, “nom d’un chien”, and probably also the obsolete “sacrebleu”, “palsambleu”, etc. The parallel with the English variants is obvious.

    As for offending people, you know what: there will always be somebody somewhere offended by something you say. I am personally offended by bigotry. But the bigots don’t care 😉

    -Erik

  10. kahikinui888 Says: June 23, 2008 at 3:00 am

    “you sound like a moron if you say “oh my God” all the time.”

    Perhaps, perhaps not! The English are inclined to use “bloody” in every day conversation and quite often. Does this make them sound like morans” ?

    How about the mf word which pores out of a certain societal segment with ease…I will take “oh my god” over bloody and mf any day!

    oh yes, I was raised a Catholic and if us kids took the name of the Lord in vain ( and that includes saying oh my god) we were beaten with a leather strap…..those who beat children for saying “oh my god” should be……..well, I am gonna leave that to your imagination.

  11. Evil Euro Says: June 23, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    This sport is called football, you yankee ignoramus.

    • Mark J. Mathews Says: July 3, 2012 at 6:53 am

      Funny you understood what he was refering to then when he said soccer. I guess for you –this author was taking the name “football” in vain by calling it soccer. So maybe you get his point. What you said could have been said in a much nicer way than you said it, but I guess it’s ok to be rude on the internet….. Eh?

  12. Michael Says: June 23, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    The 2nd commandment does say: use “in vain”, allow me to freely translate this to: use in a bad way. It’s not like you are saying goddamn, which obviously is cursing ‘gOD’. To me it sounds more like you are protecting god or having pitty with him: “Oh my god, too bad you have to see this”, or “my god, what did become of your creation”,… So what do you think about (at least) belgian devout people using the names of jesus, mary and joseph all the time (in one expression)? Not one a-religious or anti-religious person will ever use these.

    Anyway, lately i can’t stop saying ‘wo diao’, ‘made bi de’, … in every sentence, because of long term exposure. I think this is much worse than using the word/name god or wode tian. The funny thing is, my chinese friends think this shows my chinese is getting better :). I don’t agree.

    I do agree that too much is too much though.

  13. I’m French-Canadian and we have a very strong Catholic background where I grew up. Basically every swear word is in one way or another related to the church: ”tabarnac”, ” sacristie”, ”Jesus Christ”, ”calisse”, the list goes on. We can also put them together to make sentences like people do in English with the word fuck: ”Calisse de Tabarnac de Jésus Christ”

    From my understanding of things, until the sixties the Catholic church ruled everything in Quebec and other French areas in Canada, these words must have been condemned and eventually became swear words, or else when the quiet revolution came about in the 60’s people just started using these words to rebel against the church. Nowadays, most people almost never go to church, but they still use the name of god for not very Christian purposes…

  14. @ John – I don’t have any religious education, but Isn’t god the title, not the name? Either way I think that many of the people that are offended by it are just looking for a reason to be offended and act victimized as the phrase has no religious connotations for most people. What’s far more important isn’t so much the words, but the intent behind them.

    @ Todd – When you feel it distasteful when a tourist injects Aussie slang into their speech you should realize (in case you haven’t) that people tend to speak like the people around them. Having been to the UK numerous times (but never lived there) I often find myself unconsciously using phrases I wouldn’t normally use (and in many cases have never heard of in the US) when speaking. Don’t discount that they may just be trying to communicate and have lived there long enough for the phrases to stick, even if their accents need more work.

    Also, I know that there are people that use such phrases in an attempt to be funny, the most annoying of which is when a tourist uses ‘the funny local word/phrase’ to impress his tourist friends, but there are many cases where it really can be funny.

  15. jon byrne Says: June 23, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    oh my god ,you called it soccer 😉

  16. @ Evil Euro,

    To be fair, the word ‘soccer’ isn’t yankee in creation. Sure American’s use it, but it came around when the sport was being distinguished from rugy…in England.

  17. “My God” may be common in everyday speech, but it’s pretty much taboo (in American journalism, at least) to use the phrase in any formal writing unless it’s quoting someone. English-language newspapers would never allow it unquoted in any article, let alone headline.

  18. StanDuke Says: June 24, 2008 at 2:15 am

    John, I can relate to your reaction to your students saying OMG. My wife (who is Chinese) said ‘Oh my God’ a few times and I insisted that she stop and listen to how ladies her age use ‘Oh my God’ before she used it again. I’m not super religious but it just didn’t sound right when she said it. She was pretty offended at the time but now I think she’s got the hang of it. Religious or not, in mainstream America when people say OMG they’re saying something just a little bit naughty, and I think you’re doing your Chinese students a favor to give them a ‘heads up’.

  19. Hi John,

    Young folks in China love watching the TV show Friends, and I know of some who are specifically emulating Chandler’s ex-girlfriend Janice, whose catchphrase was (an exaggerated) “Oh…my…God.” One of my friends there even does it with Janice’s Brooklyn(?) accent.

  20. Henning Says: June 24, 2008 at 3:50 am

    I wonder whether this type of religious sensitivity is restricted to the US or if it can also be found in other English-speaking nations. http://www.harrisinteractive.com/news/allnewsbydate.asp?NewsID=1131

  21. I always thought it was strange because few know how to use it. In America I’ve heard it used in response to extremely bad news, like terminal illness, mugging, etc. or exclamatory in a valley girl sort of way. “Oh, my, God, Becky, look at her butt!”
    The Chinese (that said it) were using it in a completely foreign way. Then some of them switched to saying “shit” all the time, also incorrectly.

  22. Andy,

    Why would they want to imitate Janice from Friends? The whole point of her character (at least in the beginning) was that she was horribly annoying.

  23. Shocked dude Says: June 24, 2008 at 11:58 am

    I work surrounded by Chinese, and even if I dislike “OMG”, or “哦麦嘎” as some (non-English speaking) Chinese tend to say too often, I believe it’s as bad as “我靠” which I hear equally often – that is to say, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., mon to fri, to a frequency of one every 3 minutes.

  24. So, why was the Chinese newspaper saying “Ou My God”? I think they were misusing it as well…it’s just a soccer game, jeez.

    Same thing happens to any sort of fanboy language learner…they forego the actual language in favor of all the cutesy phrases, which they use incessantly.

  25. Personally, I am not offended by invocations of God or a god, but I can’t help but cringe every time I hear Chinese people use it. It’s not that they use it at the wrong times…necessarily. But it’s that it is such a colloquial phrase, that unless it is said in the right time with the right intonation, it just sounds ridiculous. Likewise, there are many phrases in Chinese that unless I were DaShan, just make me sound silly if I were to try to say them. Many 成语 come under this category. It’s not just knowing the meaning and the context. You have to know the proper feeling (in Chinese it’s called 语感, I can’t think of a good English translation) in order for it not so sound awkward.

    When I taught English, I told my students just not to use invocations to God…for no other better reason than it usually just came out sounding really cheesy.

  26. John,
    Yes, I agree that Janice was annoying (from beginning to end). I don’t know if my Chinese friends picked up on that in the same way as Americans would. Anyway, I agree that I have heard many Chinese say, “Oh my God,” and that it always sounds jarring.

  27. Doesn’t it come down to G/g? gods (small g) are not exclusive to judeo-christians. Zeus, Ra and Thor are all gods. When a Chinese atheist says “Oh my god”, who’s to say which belief system they are referring to?

  28. JTFC < that is an awesome saying. I have to remember it to use it the next time I have the chance!

    “But if the idea of a god is inherently illogical (if the very idea is self-contradictory or meaningless), or if it is contradicted by the evidence, then there are strong positive reasons to take a harder stance as an atheist – with respect to that particular god. For in this sense, even believers are strong atheists – they deny the existence of hundreds of gods. Atheists like me merely deny one more god than everyone else already does – in fact, I deny the existence of the same god already denied by believers in other gods, so I am not doing anything that billions of people don’t do already.”
    -Richard Carrier

  29. Adjusting Says: June 26, 2008 at 6:08 am

    Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, but I was raised catholic too, and I’ve never heard of anyone being offended by Oh my god.

  30. Blasphemy is a victimless crime…I wouldn’t worry about it.

  31. In case anyone is curious about the British stance on blasphemy; in my experience it’s more or less acceptable, but you wouldn’t say OMG , etc in front of Catholics or your grandparents. Though sometimes even then it’s fine. There isn’t much alternative really; all the vaguely expressive sayings are all either blasphemous or explicit and those sayings with religious connotations are generally preferred to explicit ones (with the exception of a working-class Christian guy I know, who happily uses the F and S words, but won’t commit blasphemy).

    My friend used to use ‘damn you’ and ‘damnit’ all the time and had no idea what it meant until the age of 15 when she finally asked and consequently apologised to all the things she had condemned.

  32. i actually learned in an old testament class
    that “taking the lord’s name in vain” meant
    to break your word on a contract. in the olden
    days, people would often agree on something
    in god’s name. to break that contract was to
    take his name in vain.

    so when we’re shouting OMG or even JC,
    it’s not really what the bible meant. but the
    effect may be the same and bother some folk.

  33. I hear my co-workers saying that phrase everday here in Canada in any situations they think it isn’t normal. No one seems to be offended at least for once no mattter what their background is. Don’t go too far or think too much when something doesn’t meet one’s own standard. This is a big world. One is doing things everyday that is not right to another.

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