Gosh, Golly, Gee
“Only connect,” E.M. Forster told us, and poor Mitt Romney just can’t, alienating the left by spelling out that he doesn’t care about the downtrodden and dissing the right by describing himself as “severely conservative.” But Romney’s lack of personal warmth goes further than his remarks—or coiffure, or pet care—and right down to his interjections.
It’s the G-words. “This was back, oh gosh, probably in the late ’70s,” he reminisced to a radio host about a steak house. Or, Romney surmised how his Mormonism would play out during his campaign with, “Oh, I think initially, some people would say, ‘Gosh, I don’t know much about your faith, tell me about it,’ ” as if his G-word fetish were the way just anyone talks these days. Or: Chris Wallace asked whether said faith might be a disadvantage in voter perceptions of him, and Romney exclaimed, “Gee, I hope not!” Then, Romney on carried interest—one is to “say, gosh, is this a true capital investment with a risk of loss?”
Gee, gosh, and golly are all tokens of dissimulation. They are used in moments of excitement or dismay as burgherly substitutions, either for God and Jesus—words many religious people believe should not be “taken in vain”—or for words considered even less appropriate. Fittingly, they even emerged as disguised versions of God (gosh and golly) and Jesus (gee; cf. also jeez). This was in line with how cursing worked in earlier English. The medieval and even colonial Anglophones’ versions of profanity were to express dismay or vent pain by swearing—“making an oath”—to God or related figures considered ill-addressed in such a disrespectful way. The proper person at least muted the impact with a coy distortion, à la today’s shoot and fudge. Hence zounds (first attestation: 1600), as in by his (Christ’s) wounds; egad for Ye God (1673); and by Jove (1598). To increasing numbers of modern Americans, the G-words are unusable outside of quotation marks, be these actual or implied, rather like the word perky.
The proscription against swearing “to God” has ever less force. I recall being taught it as a child in the ’70s but being quietly perplexed as to why and wondering what “in vain” meant. Since then, “ohmigod” has become an ordinary remark among even a great many churchgoers. The evasive essence of the G-words, redolent of the Beaver Cleaver 1950s Romney grew up in, has long been rejected as phony, out of line with the let-it-all-hangout essence of the culture. Indicatively, a Web search turns them up endlessly in ironic writing about Romney’s assorted evasions and half-truths during his campaign. The modern American, even if he or she has one of Romney’s Harvard degrees, often uses today’s version of profanity in the slots where Romney slides his G-words. A more, shall we say, vibrant translation of “Gee, I hope not” would be “Shit, I hope not,” and in “This was back, oh gosh, probably in the late ’70s,” “hell” would be substituted for the “oh gosh,” especially after a beer or two. Or, even in more buttoned-up moments, our versions of those sentences might include “Man, I hope not,” and especially for those under about 40, “Dude, I don’t know much about your faith.” Man and dude both reach out to the interlocutor seeking agreement. Man and dude are, at heart, solicitations—“You know what I mean, man/dude?”
This warmer, more personal way of speaking fits with a trend in American English during Romney’s lifetime, in which casual speech styles have occupied ever more of the space that used to be reserved for the more formal. Casual speech always has more room for the folksy reach-out than formal speech does: Witness the use of yo today among younger black people. “Them pants was tight, yo!” I once caught on the subway. The yo isn’t the grand old call from a distance—Yo!—the guy’s friend was standing right there. This new yo appended to the ends of sentences has a particular function,reinforcing that you and your conversational partner are on the same page in terms of perspectives and attitudes.
This is also happening very quickly in texting and instant messaging. It’s common knowledge that lol means “laughing out loud,” but these days, young people’s texts are full of lols that can hardly stand for guffawing. Here is an example of an actual instant-messaging session between teenagers, with details altered for confidentiality:
The lol is the texting equivalent of black English’s yo, a nugget of new colloquial grammar establishing a warm shared frame of reference.
Language is clearly an area where Romney differs from his opponent. President Obama, for all of his coolness of demeanor, reveals himself as a more modern speaker—and by extension person—with his quiet but steady sampling from the kick-back realm of language. This is true not only in the dusting of black inflection he often uses for rhetorical purposes, but in a certain interjectional tic: a particular penchant for you know even in weighty contexts. You know steps outside of the formal, propositional box of a statement to solicit agreement from the listener, rather like a raising of the eyebrows or hands spread outward with palms upward. A dedicated Obama mimic could go a long way in sprinkling develop thoughtful statements with ample you know-age. Here is part of Obama’s recent statement in favor of gay marriage:
This is something that, you know, we’ve talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do. And that is that, in the end, the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others. But, you know, when we think about our faith . . .
This usage of you know is not new. In 1998, I asked a 95-year-old linguist whether he remembered people using like in the hedging way they do now when he was a child, and he said that back then, you know was used in the same way. (I have since been told this by two other nonagenarians.) The difference is that Woodrow Wilson wasn’t given to saying you know in discussing the League of Nations. Language has warmed up a great deal.
Romney’s God-fearing, impersonal G-words, then, reveal him as linguistically a person of another time, in which the public mood was cooler than today’s. That can be a good thing. Even Father Coughlin would not have called an earnest young woman, or anyone else, a slut on the radio. Yet the fact remains that there are few better ways to connote the air of a mannequin in 2012 than by saying gosh with a straight face.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.