December 2013 - January 2014
A friend of mine whom I call the Conversationalist, in the way that 18th-century essayists used such noms de plume (Dr Johnson called himself The Rambler), seems to rather like it. My friend, although not himself a great conversationalist, is interested in how we converse these days. He spends much idle time in coffee shops, trains and bars listening to people’s conversations, or initiating them with, say, cab drivers, so that he can observe them, collect them, as it were. Yes, that’s it – he collects conversations.
Well, the Conversationalist buttonholed me the other day and brought to my attention that in this godless age, with the decline of religion in the West (thank God), he had observed that our conversation is still littered with what he chose to call dead prayers. These dead prayers are relics from a time when prayers were a real conversation with God (usually asking for something: a better deal in life, a better refrigerator). He thought it intriguing that atheists and other pagans still fell back on conversations with God even though they knew that he had either resigned or died. They still cursed at him or made appeals to him.
The Conversationalist said that one of the dead prayers most used at present is “Oh my God”, an expression of awe or, at times, a supplication. It is so often used that it is now reduced to the acronym. (The Conversationalist pointed out that the Oxford calls it an initialism. He has a penchant for “pointing things out”. The Conversationalist is something of a conversation contributor. He makes gentle corrections and improvements to one’s conversation, although he sometimes listens too closely for my liking.)
As something of a gift, the next time we met I gleefully showed the Conversationalist a new magazine with “OMG it’s free” on its cover. He was pleased, and wrote it in the black leather notebook that he had had made by a saddler in Berry. We continued our discussion as to why it was that this particular prayer had become so fashionable. A few years back it was reserved for rather astounding gossip and was not reduced to OMG but was, in fact, often extended for effect to “Ohhhh myyyy godddd!” Now, initialised, it seemed rather milder.
The Conversationalist had something to show me in turn, which he took from his Berry-made briefcase. (I think the leather is a little too thick and there is maybe too much brass in the buckles, but it is distinctive in a rugged, pastoral kind of way.) He handed me a Mother’s Day greeting card that said, “Oh My God, My Mother Was Right About Everything!” Now if it were true that our mothers turned out to be right about everything it would be a perfect example of the use of the expression – worthy enough to share it with the Divine and, at the same time, show God evidence of our adult humility and repentance for what we had said about our mothers over the years (although he may have heard the joke before).
The Conversationalist then sprang another surprise on me. (In addition to pointing out minor misconceptions, he enjoys “springing a surprise”. His favourite is demonstrating that something we consider “new” has in fact been around for much longer than we think.)
He said that the Oxford records that the first use of OMG was in 1917 as a British navy joke along the lines of “I hear that there is a new order of knighthood on the tapis – O.M.G.”
Puzzled, I stared into my martini and tried to unravel this joke, but I was forced to ask what “on the tapis” meant.
The Conversationalist patiently explained (he enjoys patiently explaining) that “on the tapis” meant “on the table”, under consideration, as in to table a motion in parliament. Tapis was from the French for a tablecloth or covering.
I said I still didn’t get the joke. I suspect the Conversationalist loves explaining jokes more than he likes laughing at them. “It was a joke that tells us that the term ‘OMG’ as we use it today was common enough among navy officers that it should be turned into a mock honour in the British honours system, which traditionally reduces many of the awards to initials: CMG, OBE, OM and so on.”
He was staring at me, waiting for a glimmer of comprehension, but I was still at a loss. He explained the implication was that in the navy things went badly wrong so often and blunders occurred so frequently that “Oh my God” was much in use as an expression of exasperation and that it should be awarded as an honour – in fact, a dishonour, a mocking award, an OMG.
I said that I now got the joke but it seemed rather narrow and very British. I suggested that the term “Oh my God” as we now use it must be a fresh beginning and was unlikely to stem from British navy use back in 1917. “It is a rather dumb joke.” I was a little irritated at him for having told it and at me for not having got it. “As an anecdote it is too clumsy to be either lucid information or a joke.”
“I wasn’t telling it as a joke,” he said, patiently. “It was presented as etymological information. And you never know how long it has kicked around.”
To regain my standing in the conversation, I said that another dead prayer currently in use was “Gee!” It is used as a non-blasphemous abbreviation for Jesus to express mild surprise.
“Ah,” he said. I knew by the tone that he was going to “spring” something on me. “But language, in its infinite game playing, has now reversed it.” He said that “Gee” was now used sarcastically, as a response that mocked as naive the information that had been delivered in conversation, implying that the person who said it was a little behind the flow. It was a form of “Oh, really?”
“You mean rather like ‘Duh’?” I said, adding that I had picked up the term from television. He shrugged. The Conversationalist watched little television, preferring, he said, the babbling cavalcade of language in public places to the scripted life of the screen.
The Conversationalist read other common dead prayers from his made-in-Berry notebook: frustration prayers such as “Christ!”, “Christ almighty!” and “Sweet Jesus!”, as well as supplications such as “God help us” and “Holy smoke”.
I said it had been a long time since I had heard “Holy smoke”. We surmised that it was a verbal form of a burnt offering, words substituting for an actual sacrifice to God.
I commented that it had also been a long time since I had heard someone say “Gosh” or “Golly”, non-blasphemous substitutes for the word “God”, just as “Crikey” substitutes for “Christ”.
I told the Conversationalist that I frequently used dead prayers when getting into bed some nights, burdened with angst, versions of “Jesus, let me die tonight”. Sometimes I even felt, lying there with my eyes closed, that I was, thankfully, dying, but bang, there I was in the morning, faced with Syria, jellyfish taking over the oceans, starving babies in Africa, and the decline in the editing of the New Yorker.
He suggested I “talk to someone” about this particular prayer. “They have pills now for that prayer.”
“You mean pills as in overdose or pills to suppress the prayer?”
Without smiling, he said, “Take your pick.”
I asked the Conversationalist whether dead prayers, when used by a non-religious person, indicated that he or she, unconsciously or in an exaggerated and humorous way, was paying homage to a lost god. Was it to some extent an acknowledgement of the strangeness of some event or experience – a strangeness that could, perhaps, be considered spiritual-like?
“I doubt it,” he said. He is a rather strict atheist.
I said that I was only suggesting that, though I accepted that he was dead or had resigned, God would be pleased that we still address him to ease bewilderment, frustration, despair and pain. I took up my line with some enthusiasm and said that, to a degree, dead prayers work as a way of transferring the pain of existence into blasphemous words or prayers and curses. The simple saying of the words serves to psychologically calm us, just as swearing relieves the pain when, say, we hit our finger with a hammer. “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you,” I said. “Peter 5:6–7.”
The Conversationalist cleaned away moisture from the glass-top table with a napkin and relished the last of his martini before looking at me. “You learnt that biblical reference before you came to meet me, didn’t you?” Narrowing his eyes, he continued: “You were just waiting for the opportunity to throw it into the conversation. That is what we call a gee-whiz throw-in.”
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