Dot Wordsworth

O

Someone was commenting in the paper about Catholics adopting an extra syllable in the translation of the Mass from this month by saying, ‘Glory to you, O Lord’ instead of ‘Glory to you, Lord’. It does sound more polite.

O with the vocative sounds archaic now. I seldom say, ‘O my husband.’ But O still retains a lively existence. We may be condescending to former centuries for inconsistent spelling, but our spelling of O, which looks simple enough, has slipped in the past 100 years. In 1902, the Oxford English Dictionary commented that, as an interjection, the spelling Oh ‘is now usual only when the exclamation is quite detached from what follows’. So the Edwardians would be expected to exclaim ‘Oh!’ on burning a finger, but ‘O dear!’ when commiserating. Today, O is used before vocatives and Oh! for exclamations, though Robert Burchfield’s wise revision of Fowler notes that there is no exceptionless rule. When, in Tarzan of the Apes (1914), Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote, ‘O Alice, Alice, what shall I do?’ is the O really a vocative or does it act as an intensifier modifying ‘what shall I do’?

With the voguish phrase today, O my God, an annoying aspect is the common utterance of each word as a separate exclamation, as if this were novel and amusing. After consulting Veronica, I conclude that, in Kaiser Chiefs’ well known song of the name from 2004, there is an element of irony in the refrain ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it!’ Just now, the phrase is often uttered as an initialism, OMG. In Usher’s unpleasant number from last year (all boobs and booties), the title OMG is expanded in the lyrics to ‘Oh my gosh’ (which the OED charmingly calls a ‘mincing pronunciation of God’.

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