[I apologize to anyone offended by the use of profanity in this post. I’ve only used it when necessary. But I have not made any attempt to disguise or shield users from it.]
Off and on for the past few years I’ve worked on a kind of dictionary of Mormon Terms (this link is to website where this project is hosted—free registration and login required), an attempt to define the language that is unique to Mormons and those who discuss Mormonism or that is used more often or in different ways by Mormons than others. This includes individual words and phrases, slang and Church-specific terminology—anything that might not be understood well by those outside of Mormon culture.
I plan to post about specific terms from time to time as I come across things that might be of interest, or as I feel the need to give a boost to my own efforts and interest. And perhaps in doing so, I might also persuade others to give a hand to help this effort along. Today I’m posting about exaltation, a word I chose at random from among those not yet defined.
Those sources that talk about “oh my heck” all claim that it is either a Mormon or Utah term. Online dictionaries like Wiktionary, the Online Slang Dictionary and the Urban Dictionary all observe its popularity in Utah or among Mormons. The Utah History Encyclopedia also suggests that this expression is peculiar to Utah. And, when I search for the term in Google Books, the majority of the books referenced are either Mormon or written by authors with ties to the Intermountain West. They include Pat Bagley’s 1988 cartoon book, Oh My Heck.
However, there are a couple of exceptions which make me think that perhaps “Oh My Heck” is not exclusively Mormon. One is a 1990 UK book by Nigel Duckers and Huw Davies, A Place in the Country: Social Change in Rural England, which uses the expression and seems to have no connection to Mormonism or to the U.S. at all.
The other exception is a deleted scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the text of which can be found here. It also uses the expression “Oh my heck” exactly as it is often used in Utah. While I suppose its possible that one of the Pythons had been exposed to Utah vocabulary before writing the film, it seems more likely that this expression is not unknown in the UK. And, since the film came out in 1979, it predates any of the published sources I found for “Oh my heck,” which suggests that the UK use may even precede that in Utah.
I think it might help puzzling this out to look at the word “heck.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “heck” as a euphemism for hell, and records its first published use in 1887 in a book titled Folk-speech S. Cheshire, which is apparently a scientific study. It also references a use in Sinclair Lewis’ book Babbitt, published in 1922. Of note to Mormons is its use in General Conference, first in a 1952 talk by Thomas E. McKay, in which he told of the family’s postman reacting to having to deliver an inopportune mission call:
He threw the letter across the table in disgust and said, “Isn’t that heck?” He used a stronger word.
The General Conference Corpus indicates that “heck has been used in four additional talks since, the last in 1990.
Given the popularity of “heck” as a euphemism, apparently in different parts of the English-speaking world, and the use of the expression “Oh my hell”, now less frequently used, I think that “oh my heck” is a natural extension of “heck,” one that anyone preferring the use of euphemisms would naturally invent.
So, where does this leave us? In any case the use of “Oh my heck” appears to be relatively recent — the first published use (as far as I can tell so far) is 1979. But the preponderance of the use in Utah and the perception that it is of Mormon or Utah origin is the only reason for considering “Oh my heck” as a Mormon term. But, in my view, this is probably sufficient.
As for its definition, to state the obvious, “Oh my heck” is an interjection meaning roughly, in colloquial terms, “oh my god” (instead of the more infrequently used “oh my hell” which might be assumed from the meaning of “heck”).
[Please, this is NOT a post about when and if profanity should be used or even what is profanity (except whether or not “Oh my heck” is profanity). Please don’t comment on profanity, we’ve covered that in other posts.]