In a recent Washington Post article on a medical mystery, a radiology technician is reported to have exclaimed, Oh my God, look at that aorta. After reading the article, I wondered about that quote. Not about its accuracy, not about whether the aorta really was something to behold, and not about what it must have felt like to be the owner of the aorta when he realized that the man was talking about him. I wondered about God. More specifically, I wondered about the capitalization of God.
I teach a class on psalms and wisdom literature at Calvin College. In the psalms, the Israelites talked to God about what was on their hearts and in their minds, whether that was their fear, anger, shock, thankfulness, or joy. In the course of talking to God about these things, the psalmists addressed God in a variety of ways, such as God (Ps 51:1), Lord (Yahweh; Ps 10:1), my God (Ps 22:1), and Lord God Almighty the God of Israel (Ps 59:5). Each way of addressing God had a particular nuance to it in terms of how a given psalmist was thinking about the one they were talking to.
While the way a psalmist addressed God is an important thing to ponder, there is something else about addressing God in a psalm that is even more important and more fundamental to consider, and that is the very fact of addressing God at all. When the psalmists were dealing with some situation or thinking through some sentiment, they talked with God about it. That is, they did not just talk out loud, or yell into space. They talked to someone, a divine someone.
To illustrate just how profound this simple idea really is, and just how different it is from the way our own culture thinks and acts, I sometimes write the following two lines on the board in my class:
“ goddamn it all
“ god, damn it all
These two lines draw on words and thoughts that are in the culture all around us, and that people use at times of crisis or frustration. Given how ordinary they are in our culture, I hope the reader will forgive me for writing them, and not get lost in whether or not it was proper for me to do so in an essay about God or on the board of a classroom at a Christian college. The point I want to make is too important to miss because of a concern over swearing. And I would not write those lines and talk about them if I did not think so.
Note that the two lines use the same sounds and syllables. And certainly the same emotions are involved in each. But the character of the lines is vastly different. People speaking the first line are venting their frustration or anger or fear. They may or may not be talking with someone when they say it. But regardless of whether someone else is there or not, speakers of the first line are not addressing anyone with its words. They are simply talking out loud, or yelling into space. Thus, for a speaker of the first line, god is just a sound. People speaking the second line are also venting their frustration or anger or fear. Unlike speakers of the first line, however, speakers of the second line are addressing someone with its words. For them, god is not just a sound. It is a noun. And in particular, it is a noun that is the name and title of the someone they are talking to.
When this fundamental difference between the two lines comes into focus, note that one feels compelled to capitalize god in the second line, because that is how the names and titles of a person are marked in English. As for god in the first line, since that is only a sound, one feels compelled to leave it as it is, in lower case.
In our culture it is probably the rare person who is talking to God when they say something like Oh my God, look at that aorta. No doubt some are. And maybe that radiology tech quoted in the Washington Post article was. Most, though, are just talking out loud, or yelling into space. And they just happened to use a certain sound when they did that.
What is curious then is that, when a person is reported to have said Oh my God or Oh God, they are reported as having said, not god, but God. Given the state of religious thinking in our culture, that is probably inaccurate in most instances. Of course, the fact that most people are not referring to God when they say god points out the general lack of awareness or regard for God in our language and culture. But the lack of interest in typographical precision when the word god is written points to this as well.
This then makes me think that the responsible and proper thing for journalists and other writers to do is to acknowledge that the default character of god in our culture is simply that of a sound signifying nothing, and to put it in lower case when they quote someone as saying it. However, if in their pursuit of accuracy, they know or can determine that the speaker was actually talking to someone, it should then, and only then, be capitalized.
I think that God would appreciate such attention to typographical detail.
Richard Whitekettle is a professor of religion at Calvin College.