Oh my God!

If, in his lifetime, Christopher Hitchens were to say “goddammit,” few would have thought anything of it. After all, the term is typically used as a simple, yet minor, curse word having no relationship of any kind to God, isn’t it?  No one, no one at all, utters it asking for God’s intercession in the instance of an event that, to the utterer, has caused his displeasure – whether a sudden storm, a failing grade on a child’s report card, or a late delivery of pizza. And especially in Hitchens’s case, given his well-known disbelief in God, there would have been no intent to violate the Third Commandment  (“Thou shall not take the name of the Lord, thy God in vain”).

It might, of course, have been different, and greater cause for analysis, had Hitchens said “God bless you,” if someone had sneezed in his presence – rather than his saying “gesundheit” (literally meaning “good health to you”), with no reference whatsoever to God or His involvement or supposed involvement in the curative process.  As a friend, whom I refer to here as “Son of Muse,” reveals, “‘Oh my God’, is, in my opinion, devoid of any connection to the Divine,” and it is emblematic of a culture moving further away from organized religion.  While he doesn’t see devout believers as using the phrase as “flippantly” as others, “‘Oh my God’ can be replaced with literally any three words.  It wouldn’t matter.  There’s no difference between that phrase and ‘pass the salt.’”

Now, perhaps, had Hitchens – a devout (my word) atheist – used the phrase “God bless you”, some might have given it more considered thought. They may have wondered whether in some small, undisclosed, place in his consciousness Hitchens reserved a space for an actual possibility of God’s existence – although he would probably have employed it only when he truly cared enough about the sneezer to send the very best.

Let’s put the phrases “God bless you” or “Oh my God”  or “OMG” to the side. In reality, the use of the term goddammit in contrast to them may, indeed, have even less a relationship to a Divine Being as does the expression “f-ckyourself” or “f-ckyou” – intending to express the antithesis of approval – might have to anything sexual in nature (except that the former arguably suggests a very difficult acrobatic act). It would have no sexual connotation, as it contrarily might if someone were to say to a sex object or a romance counterpart “I’d like to f-ck you” (whether uttered in that questionably romantic way, or not).

So, uttering the term goddammit has no relationship to God, notwithstanding an unfortunate amenability to engage in blasphemy, and go f-ckyourself  has nothing to do with sex.  They’re both expressions of disdain, period! And even nuttier is the expression “f-ckme” as a statement of scorn occasioned by something having gone wrong. What, indeed, can that expression possibly mean, if you really want to think about it?

So, putting to the side this questionable excursion relating to truly raucous cursing, why do people of faith (or even people who lack faith) use these expressions at all, even if not intended to place blame on God, or, in the case of non-believers, maybe on those who believe in God? While I confess personal guilt in frequently cursing, either using expletives or, contrarily, using God’s name in vain, or both, I do have some boundaries (although frankly am not sure why).

It is suggested by some that, particularly in other languages, expletives are joined with the most sacrosanct aspects of Christianity – the declarant of the curse outright wanting to offend in the most strident way possible by invoking sacrosanctity along with the curse word.  A quick google search placed me in Quebec – sacres!  Yes, the term for profanities flows from the verb consacre, to consecrate.

Tabernak (tabernacle), calice (chalice), bapteme (baptism) –  all words deemed sacred or holy by the Church – were recreated into harsh profanities intending to give a linguistic “f-ckyou” to the Church.  And there are others: esti (meaning holy host, or body of Christ); ciboire (a container used to contain the host/Eucharist during Catholic communion).  So, he who curses engages religious objects to make the curse even more profane. Indeed, more insulting.

In the US, we, or many of us, say “Oh Christ” and also employ references to the ostensible holy – “holy sh-t” comes to mind. What about “By Jove”?  It is said that in 18th and 19th century England, it was considered an offense to say “By God”.  And so it became “By Jove”, referring to the alternate name for the Roman god Jupiter. Now, to be fair, we also invoke God’s name in affirming expressions like “thank God” or “God bless you” when they are not intended to invoke God’s presence at all.  Is it reflexive?  Historical?  Why is imposing God’s name in a truly non-religious expression of thought the norm?  Does it mean, as in the case of By Jove, that the use of God’s name has or will have in the long (or even short) run become totally unrelated in intent or in meaning to the existence of God?  God only knows!

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein, a Stroock colleague, assists in preparing the articles on this blog.