defining ‘Oh My Heck’

June 27, 2011 | 39 comments
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0--heck1
So, is “oh my heck” really a Mormon term? If you hear someone use it, can you assume that they are Mormon? Do Mormons use it more than others? And where did it come from anyway?

[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.]

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39 Responses to defining ‘Oh My Heck’

  1. Coffinberry on June 27, 2011 at 8:27 am

    “Oh my heck” I think I’ve only heard in Utah or from Utah people. The phrase I’ve heard commonly used in the Midwest US is “What the heck!” (And its variant “What the Hey!”).

  2. Janell on June 27, 2011 at 8:42 am

    Similar to coffinberry I’ve only noticed “my heck” when used by Utahns. Down in Texas I hear “what the heck,” usually from Mormon-Texans. I think “heck” is familiar to non-LDS but they’re not shy about using the actual terminology. Similarly, it’s really only high-school and college-aged Mormons that I hear using words like “fudge” as profanity.

  3. David T on June 27, 2011 at 9:00 am

    When I visited Utah for the first time about ten years ago, I remember seeing a Beer ad on a billboard, with the text, “If you just said ‘Oh My Heck’, this ad isn’t for you.” – I thought it was pure awesome.

  4. Bob on June 27, 2011 at 9:03 am

    In CA, it’s usually “What-the?!
    Yes, Mormons use a lot of profanity euphemisms. They use to be called “Near Beer” terms. But they are not fooling anyone__ but themselves.
    Dictionaries reflect spoken words. Language begins with people’s use of spoken words, then the word is placed in dictionaries.

  5. Mark B. on June 27, 2011 at 9:16 am

    I have a vague recollection that Roger Staubach, definitely not a Mormon, once used the term “bat out of heck” in a commentary on a telecast of a football game. (Googling that line brings up one other person who remembers Staubach saying that, which proves that my memory is valid, Ardis!)

    Now, it may have been that Staubach got hung up on whatever the FCC’s (or his employer’s) rules were–or it may be that Catholic boys who live in Texas long enough have their speech affected by all those Southern Baptists. Or he may just hate the English language.

  6. Jax on June 27, 2011 at 10:02 am

    So for a time in my youth I used the Lord’s name as profanity. About the time I got to be about 15 I realized how inappropriate it was and started to question why anyone would use any name at all in that manner. Never came up with an answer. Decided that if I shouldn’t use His name like that, that because there wasn’t any restriction against using other peoples names vulgarly, that I would just change the name that I use. You can’t believe some of the looks I get when I say, “Holy Moses!” or “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz!” I basically just pick random biblical names – mostly I use ‘Moses’ – and I wonder when I die what kind of conversation I’ll get to have with Moses about the way I’ve used his name. That might be awkward :)

    Anyway Kent, you can feel free to add those phrases to your list of terms used by Mormons.

  7. Jax on June 27, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Oh, and I also used to hear ‘son of a biscuit-eater’ quite often while growing up in Utah. I’m sure you can see the connection.

  8. Jacob M on June 27, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Jax, I got you beat. I used son of a bishop as my replacement. Frick has also been used.

  9. Scott Armstrong on June 27, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Shiz seems to be popular. Awesome Jaredite name and convenient euphemism…Holy Shiz!

  10. Sid on June 27, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    I am a British Mormon – a convert of about 13 years. When I was growing up in the 1960s here in the UK ‘heck’, ‘oh my heck’ and ‘what the heck’ were in common use – especially the latter one. Considering the strong class distinction here I think it is a decidedly lower class euphemism, people higher in the social scale using different words, and also it seems to me to be restricted to the south of England (I rarely heard it in other parts of the UK). Also there was a run of British comedy films from the 1950s to the 1970s in which it was used occasionally, as well as use in TV sitcoms of the time, as stronger words were not allowed to be broadcast.

  11. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 27, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    I’ve heard non-Mormons use “flip” here in Texas, which was quite a surprise.

  12. lyle on June 27, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    I prefer frak. or is it frack? I blame glen larson (sp?).

  13. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 27, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Since it seems to be well established as a common usage in England, perhaps we should remember that the majority of LDS membership during the 19th century was from the UK. Just think: Wales gave the Mormons the Tabernacle Choir, while the Southwest of England gave us “Oh my heck”.

    (By the way, among missionaries in Japan circa 1970, the common substitute swear word was “Pick” or “Pickin’”.)

    Sometimes our efforts to use such euphemisms don’t pan out. A couple of years ago, in Eagle, Idaho, my daughter and son-in-law were in the Family Relations class during Sunday School. Their oldest son William (age 9) was in the classroom next door with his Primary class. Suddenly there was a loud explosive noise outside the meetinghouse (a car backfire?), which could be heard clearly inside. The next thing they heard was William’s squeaky voice exclaiming “What the he– was that?”

    He gets it from his Dad’s family.

  14. Kent Larsen on June 27, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    Raymond (13), I’m afraid that it is far from certain that “Oh my heck” comes from England, especially given that the oldest published usage of the phrase is from 1979, not 1879. And, even its use in England is in doubt–one friend from the UK who I asked about the phrase had never heard it used in England.

    IMO, all signs point to recent development of the phrase (perhaps in the 1960s or 1970s) as an extension of “heck” — which probably eliminates any import of “Oh my heck” from England to Utah by Mormon immigrants.

  15. Josh on June 27, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    When I taught high school in CA, the kids would say “hecka” around teachers and “hella” when adults weren’t listening. I only had one mormon student.

  16. Jennie on June 27, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    I overheard this joke from one teenage girl to another, on a Trax (public transportation) in Salt Lake, circa 2000: “Do you know what heck is? It’s the place you go if you don’t believe in gosh.”

  17. Bill of Wasilla on June 27, 2011 at 11:23 pm

    I must correct this sentence in your opening paragraph:

    “And where did it come from anyway?”

    It should read,

    “And where the heck did it come from anyway?”

    If you can’t that the heck right, then how the heck do you expect to lead a proper discussion on the use of the word, “Heck”?

  18. Bill of Wasilla on June 27, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    Oh, heck! I forgot to activate my name in the above comment, just in case anybody wants to drop by and swear at me.

  19. WillF on June 28, 2011 at 8:03 am

    I’ve decided to start saying Raca instead of Heck, but then maybe Raca is an official swear word? I’m so confused.

  20. Teacher in Texas on June 28, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Some of my recent seminary students, when frustrated would say “What the shenanigans” or “Oh shenanigans”

  21. Ideasnstuff on June 28, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    I would guess that most languages and cultures have these little “work-arounds”. A couple of examples from Spanish:

    híjole – a common one in Mexico, replaces “hijo de ______”
    la miércoles – instead of another similar “m” word

    I’ll let you all do the research to figure out what they mean.

    A challenge for Spanish-speaking Latter-Day Saints is that the most frequent word for diety, “Dios”, is so commonly used in normal, polite conversation (¡Dios mío!) that it may take new members a long time to get used to the idea that there is anything wrong with it. No need for a euphemism for “hell” either, as the word that is inserted in expressions equivalent to “what the ____” is “diablos” (devils) and it just doesn’t sound like swearing.

    Members in Argentina used several common borderline euphemisms (“la pucha” – look it up) that we as missionaries had to learn NOT to use.

  22. Jax on June 28, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    LOL…served in Argentina…. clapped at a door one day and asked for Bro. ______ and was told he wasn’t home when I used the term I had heard others on the street use … “la pucha” – companion grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, excused us from the door and took me around the corner to explain to me that we DO NOT use that term.

    Guess that is what I get for parroting street slang!

    My wife and I used to call our children our “chitlen” – she used it for some reason and I picked up on it for about 2 weeks. It came to an abrubt end when I called the kids my “little chits”. I’ve heard others use the term ‘chitlen’ and now I just smile.

  23. Mark B. on June 28, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Ah, Raymond, you stirred old memories with your mention of “pick.” I brought that word home from Japan and passed it along to my little brother, who used it once in a pick-up basketball game down at the Richards Building, and was overheard by the wife of one of our opponents (who had mentioned that my brother had stepped out of bounds, which led to his saying it), who thought that she had heard another one-syllable word with the same vowel sound, which led the same opponent to believe that he was required to defend the honor of the said wife, etc., etc. So much for safety in euphemism!

  24. Crick on June 28, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    This is a very interesting post, but I have one fear about conversations such as these…that fear is that by drawing attention to our linguistic idiosyncrasies, the use of them will evaporate as people feel embarrassed by them.

    I rarely hear people use the old Utah term “ignorant” (meaning rude) anymore and it seems that people I know who used to pronounce “creek” as “crick” do not do so anymore.

    On a related note, I don’t know when the last time I had funeral potatoes or jell-o with shredded carrots, outside of a funeral, but as a kid it seemed like we had it at least once a week.

  25. Kent Larsen on June 28, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    Crick (24), language changes continually and for many reasons. I doubt our conversation has a significant impact.

  26. Bill of Wasilla on June 29, 2011 at 3:27 am

    Kent at (25): Well, this discussion sure as heck has had a significant impact on my future use of the word, “heck.” I sure as heck am not going to use the word “heck” ever again, once I stop typing this darn sentence.

  27. Ideasnstuff on June 29, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Crick (24): Were you referring to the word “ignernt”? This word has two syllables. The similar term that means “lacking in knowledge” has three syllables.

  28. Crick on June 29, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Re: Kent: Its funny, I thought about that before making my comment but opted not to address it. You are right that language changes a lot and in that vein I think that American Mormons are a small enough and interconnected enough group of people that discussions like this can be an important part of changing language. I think the examples I gave show that.

    However, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t be having the discussion itself. In fact, I find it very interesting. Its just that I have a (hmm, philosophical?) problem with self awareness. Sometimes the moment we start to notice something interesting about ourselves is the moment it starts to (slowly?) lose its interesting quality or become more of a cliché way of describing ourselves but not an actual practice.

    I know for one that I used to always say “you bet” or “you betcha” but after an employer poked fun at the fact that Utahns often say that, I became self conscious of the fact and don’t say it as much.

    Re: Ideasnstuff: Ha ha, good point

  29. Kent Larsen on June 29, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Ah! I agree that there likely is an Observer effect on language. And it makes sense that it might be more pronounced in a relatively small group like Mormons.

  30. Alison Moore Smith on June 29, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Kent, I have nothing to add to the discussion, but wanted to tell you I thought this post very interesting and fun. Particularly as someone who has tried for decades, unsuccessfully, to remove “oh, my heck” from her vocabulary. Thanks for the research.

  31. Hans in California on June 29, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    While living in Utah I recall hearing “Oh fetch!”, “flip”, and “O, my word!”.

  32. Kent Larsen on June 29, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    Hans (31), you’ll find all of these on the list to be defined on Mormon Terms.

  33. Crick on June 30, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    I didn’t think I had anything to add to this dicussion until last night I was driving in the car and heard Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” on the AM oldies station. The words “Oh My Heck” in the song popped right out at me.

    According to Wikipedia, this song topped the U.S. charts at #1 the week MLK was assasinated. It is truly a cornball, cheesy, sentimental song of the mid-late 60s variety. I kind of wonder to what degree Utah is truly different, but then to what degree Utah is rather like the rest of America, minus about 40 or 50 years.

  34. Crick on July 1, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Correction…the song’s lyrics say “what the heck”…but close enough…

  35. anon on July 3, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    I’ve recently been wondering about the fairly common usage of “omg” which I see used by many LDS on Facebook comments, texting, etc. In my mind, that’s blasphemy since it stands for “Oh my G-d”–is there a prevailing Mormon understanding that it actually stands for “oh my gosh” and is fine? What do others here think about this phenomenon?

  36. Michael Haycock on July 4, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    I’ve noticed that only Mormons, in my experience, know the meaning of “skewompus” (askew) and “to kype” (to pilfer or steal).

  37. Kent Larsen on July 4, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Michael (36), that’s a fascinating tip. I’ll put those terms on my list to research (or you can participate in reporting the research on Mormon Terms.

  38. Karen Phelps on January 2, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    RE: OMG = Oh My G*d, I often use a variation to avoid that reference…omgosh, even tho when I think it or say it it’s gosh not G*d, in my head, I spell it out to avoid confusion. Fun column here!

  39. Adam Greenwood on January 2, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Google thinks skiwampus is the preferred spelling. I’ve only written it once, I think I spelled it ‘skeewampus.’ Can’t say I have any basis for that.

    I’ve never heard ‘kype’ but I have heard and used ‘kyfe’ with the same meaning. Google doesn’t recognize either variant.

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