Jul 13, 2022

Those of you who were regular Friends watchers from 1994 to 2004 – and the repeats ever since – will know how Janice (Maggie Wheeler) makes the iconic exclamation ‘OH – MY – GOD!’ in her trademark squeaky voice. And she’s not the only one; I am sure most people say the same thing many times in the course of their daily lives. It, and the abbreviation ‘OMG!’, seem to be acceptable responses to any situation, from the mildly interesting to the slightly surprising, and all the way up to the truly unexpected.

But those of you who read this blog on a regular basis will know that I like to understand the meaning behind such expressions and ‘unpack’ them (OMG! I so hate that expression). It seems to me that the question here is this – when you say ‘Oh my god!’ which particular god are you appealing to? In the context of the question, which god is yours?

It could be any one of the three or four thousand gods that human societies have worshipped, ever since man first stepped out of his cave and knelt down before the sun to pray it would come back again the next day. Is it Yahweh, Jesus, Allah or Vishnu perhaps? Or maybe it’s Zeus, Odin, Apollo or Thor? Then again, it could be Isis, Horus, Anubis or Osiris. Or it could even be a personal god; one that you have in your head that no-one else knows about. While I am not going to pry into which god you are claiming to own, it would be interesting to know which it is.

That’s because different gods might be expected to react to your invocation in different ways. Say you see a social post from a friend, showing how they are relaxing on a sunny beach, while you are shivering into your anorak on your rainy commute. ‘OH – MY – GOD!’ you exclaim as you stare at the pictures of them relaxing on a beach lounger, holding up their daquiri like a prize trophy and grinning like a Cheshire cat. If Jesus is your particular god, he might be expected to observe that envy is not a good look on you, then add something about the meek inheriting the earth, before then taking no further action (which seems to be his way). But if say, Thor is your go-to god, he might be more inclined to offer a thunderbolt delivery service, and take the friend out with a quick blast of lightning, which would emerge inexplicably from the cloudless sky over Tenerife. You get the point – different gods work in different ways (all of them mysterious).

Then again, what if you say ‘OMG!’, but don’t happen to believe in any god at all? Are you being disingenuous by appealing to ‘your’ god when you don’t actually have one? Or is it that the expression has lost all meaning in this modern age, where so much of the western world is becoming secular? Do committed atheists also throw ‘OMGs’ around with wild abandon, not stopping to ‘unpack’ the expression (there it goes again)? I have certainly seen several high-profile atheists on YouTube using ‘my god’ in the course of conversations, so I tend to think it has become almost meaningless.

And what of the future? What if we fast-forward to a time when the current crop of gods have become historical curiosities, like the Roman, Greek, Norse and Egyptian ones are now? When people refer to gods such as Jesus with the same detached amusement that we currently reserve for Zeus and Apollo? Will there be new gods by then? Will the people of say, the 23rd or 24th century (or whatever they call their centuries by then), be still saying OMG! but be referring to deities we have yet to encounter? (Unless perhaps it’s the one you have in your head who has somehow escaped).

Or maybe the increasing secularisation of western culture will ultimately lead to the end of religion altogether, when the supernatural framework that so many people use to make sense of their world is replaced by one of rational scientific enquiry. Then I feel we can reasonably expect the expression to disappear as well. Of course, it may be replaced by something a little more reasoned – just as language generally changes with new developments in society. What might our distant and more sensible descendants say? Maybe the expression will have evolved – and the equivalent of the Janice character will be leaning forward on the café sofa and squeaking something like ‘Oh My Beautiful Natural World!’

I do accept a phrase such as this lacks the immediacy and punchiness of ‘Oh my god!’, but at least it has the advantage of being based on reality rather than illusion.