Jumble sales of the apocalypse: OMG!
Simon Jenkins gives a brief history of OMG
Something curious happened on the Disney Channel website just before Christmas. Lilly Anderson, a girl from a good Christian family in North Carolina, visited the website on her 10th birthday and came across a question from Disney asking what she was most thankful for in her life. She keyed in: “God, my family, my church and my friends.” After clicking “send”, she waited to see her message posted on the site, but instead got a little message in red which said: “Please be nice!” It didn’t take long for Lilly and her mum to discover that they had to take the word “God” out of the message for Disney to be happy.
This kicked up a veritable blizzard of “Disney bans God” headlines in the right-wing press and reminded me of something I discovered on my smartphone a month or two earlier. I tried keying in an occasionally useful Anglo Saxon word which rhymes with cluck and found that my predictive text, which is normally so smug in trying to complete words ahead of me, simply folded its arms in righteous disapproval when it saw where I was going. It even offered words such as “fudge”, “funny” and “duck” to guide me back onto the straight and narrow.
Disney eventually had to come out and explain why it had upset Lilly. It turned out that hardly anyone posted God’s name on the website in a “please be nice”, North Carolina kind of way. Instead, they were posting “God!”, “For God’s sake”, or “Oh my God!” The problem was so bad, said Disney, that “in an abundance of caution our system is forced to catch and prevent any use of the word on our websites.” Therefore Disney, emphatically, does not do God.
This is borne out by the Parents Television Council (a conservative American TV watchdog which probably has Mary Whitehouse as its patron saint) which has apparently counted the number of times “God” is spoken on primetime US television and says that 95.9% of it is not what you would want your Bible-loving Grandma to hear.
Today’s casual profanity of choice is “Oh my God!” It’s used like a comma in everyday speech and has carved out an online career of its own as “OMG”.
I first noticed just how much it was being used on Changing Rooms, the TV show from the early 2000s. Contestants unwisely gave their neighbours the opportunity to wreck a room in their homes with hideous wallpaper and knocked together furniture that probably fell apart as soon as the cameras stopped rolling. The poor victims were blindfolded and led into their destroyed rooms for the “reveal” by a grinning Carol Smilie, and 99 times out of 100 they shrieked out: “Oh my God!!!” when the blindfold was whipped away. Whether they were crying out to the Lord for help in their hour of distress, or were mildly surprised, was always an interesting question.
Then, when Brian Dowling was crowned the winner of Ultimate Big Brother in 2010, he repeatedly cried: “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” This not only tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Big Brother, but also shows how the phrase was brought to the small screen by reality TV shows.
OMG is right there in the Psalms, of course; “OMG, my soul is cast down within me,” says Psalm 46. “Deliver me, OMG, out of the hand of the wicked,” urges Psalm 71. Except that in the Psalms it’s not OMG but “O my God” – a genuine cry for help from someone at the end of their rope. Today, it’s been watered down to a handy phrase people reach for when they encounter something a little bit unexpected and need to ramp up their surprise for effect.
OMG has been picked up by everyone from physicists to Furby. Physicists, shocked to find a high energy particle travelling close to the speed of light, jokingly named it the Oh-My-God particle, a name which has stuck. Meanwhile, parents thinking of buying a Furby for their kids have been troubled at news that the furry robotic toy occasionally squeaks “Oh-em-gee!”
Saying “Oh my God!” can be a problem for all sorts of people, from atheists worried they are betraying their atheism, to Christians anxiously debating whether the phrase is blasphemy, and how they should respond when it happens all the time. And what about God himself? Maybe the constant shrieks of “Oh my God!” from office parties and chat shows are like tinnitus in the divine ear, as God strains to hear genuine human cries for help.
This article was published in the February 2015 edition of Reform.