'OMG' Turns 100

Sep 9, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, news you can use if, say, you're going out to dinner with some particularly erudite friends and you want to impress them, especially if they are people who get annoyed when kids use terms like OMG. You might be surprised to hear that that abbreviation for, oh, my God, was not coined by a Millennial or somebody texting or tweeting. Ben Zimmer, a linguist, wrote about this recently for The Wall Street Journal - the WSJ if you want to get jiggy with it. And he tells us that OMG has actually been around for 100 years. Ben Zimmer, WTF?

BEN ZIMMER: It's amazing to think about, but it's true. We're actually celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first known use of OMG to stand for, oh, my God.

MARTIN: So the first known use was where exactly? Tell us more.

ZIMMER: Well, amazingly enough, it was in a letter that was written to Winston Churchill on September 9, 1917, by a retired admiral of the British Navy named John Arbuthnot Fisher. And Lord Fisher sent this letter. He was already in his 70s at the time, retired from the Royal Navy. And he was complaining about Britain's naval strategy in World War I against Germany. And he was actually using it in a kind of a sarcastic way.

And at the end of his letter, he said, I hear that a new order of knighthood is on the tappy (ph) - that means on the table - OMG, oh, my God, shower it on the admiralty. So he used it as a sort of a playful way to suggest that this would be some new order of knighthood, but he just kind of invented it on the spot for that letter.

MARTIN: So was it used after that? Did you find any subsequent uses of it for - until recently?

ZIMMER: Well, no. You know, this was just a one-off thing. And nobody even knew about it until relatively recently. In 2011, a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary turned up this letter when they were researching OMG. And they figured, well, you know, it's only been around since - what? - the '90s when people started using this kind of initialism that we associate now with tech speak and so forth.

So this turned up. And, you know, it was used in 1917, but it didn't get picked up by anyone after that for a long time. Winston Churchill, upon receiving this letter, did not incorporate OMG into his rhetoric. I think history would have been very different if Churchill had started using OMG and said, OMG, we shall fight on the beaches. But Churchill didn't pick up on it, and no one else did until the mid-1990s is when we start seeing it pop up again. It was sort of reinvented.

MARTIN: Can you imagine if Winston Churchill had put this into circulation before? Life-changing. Have you found any other funny stories or crazy stories behind abbreviations that you could tell us about?

ZIMMER: Well, you know, for the most part, this whole idea of sort of coming up with playful abbreviations, you know, goes back a long, long way. We just have to think about one of the most common words in the English language, OK, which actually dates all the way back to the late 1830s, when there was this fad for creating funny little abbreviations and using misspellings in the process. And so a Boston newspaper published OK as an abbreviation of all correct spelled in this funny way as O-L-L-K-O-R-R-E-C-T. So a misspelled phrase abbreviated into OK became this very important part of the English language over the years.

MARTIN: I'm tempted to say, well, OK.

(LAUGHTER)

ZIMMER: And OMG.

MARTIN: OMG. That is linguist Ben Zimmer speaking to us about his recent piece, "OMG Turns 100." Ben Zimmer, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ZIMMER: Thanks. It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.