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Ubiquitous profanity prompts a debate

Some say the expression "Oh my God" is a swipe at the Almighty. Others say it's just a way of saying "wow."

"Oh my God!"

The expression, once considered taboo in polite conversation, has become as commonplace as "that's cool" or "see you later" in American parlance. The acronym, OMG, is nearly as ubiquitous. Room-chatters rely on it; so do text-messagers. The search engine Yahoo now uses OMG as the name of a gossip-alert service.

But for many, the omnipresent phrase sounds like a sinful swipe at the Almighty. Or at least another iceberg of disrespect cracking away from the ice cap of civility.

Rosie Brecevic catches herself mid-sentence and says, instead, "Oh my gosh!"

"You try to pick a better way to say it," she says, especially at this time of year and "in front of the little children."

The Rev. Patrick Gray agrees with Brecevic. Curate of the Church of the Advent in Boston, Gray said in a sermon: "If I learned anything in my Baptist upbringing, it's that you never, ever say 'Oh my God!' in casual conversation." He finds other words.

It's impossible to muddle through a day without hearing someone - even on the public airwaves - call on a higher being for a lower purpose. Just recently:

Hannah Storm cried out "Oh my God!" during her final telecast as a cohost of

The Early Show

on CBS.

Defensive tackle Warren Sapp said this about legendary NFL quarterback Brett Favre: "Oh my God. I want to know what he's drinking and eating."

Charles Gibson said "Oh my God" while questioning Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On Yahoo, there's a spirited debate about the name of the new OMG service on one of the message boards, although officially the company avoids the dispute. "The name 'OMG' is derived from IM speak and means 'wow!' " company spokesman Carrie Davis says.

Stanley Hauerwas, a religion professor at Duke Divinity School, takes a different slant. "It's a cry not of profanity or vulgarity. It usually has the grammar of a lament," he said. "You'd have to outlaw the Psalms if you wanted to do away with laments."

Timothy Jay, author of

Cursing in America


Why We Curse,

says that according to his research, " 'Oh my God' is in the top 10 of expletives. It is used five times as much by women as by men." Jay says research also has shown that "Oh my God" is often a euphemism for something else.

Our culture is more tolerant of profanities than obscenities. The Federal Communications Commission draws distinctions between profane language - traditionally defined as irreverence toward God - and obscene material - defined by the FCC as material that describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way. Most profanities and vulgarities are allowed on the air at certain times of day, but obscenities are not.

In many societies throughout history, it has been taboo to speak the name of God. In Christendom, euphemisms - such as "zounds" (God's wounds), "golly" (God's body) and "gosh" - evolved. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "gosh" as a "mincing pronunciation of God."

Historically, sanctions against certain expressions "focused mainly on religion," Jay says. Over time in the United States, authorities gave up on preventing anti-church epithets, he says.