Some Thoughts on Godless Language

“How can you use the phrase ‘R.I.P.’? They’re not resting — they’re dead and gone! You’re catering to religion when you use that language!”

“That word ‘transcendent’ is nonsensical! There’s no supernatural world to transcend to! You’re catering to religion when you use that language!”

“Don’t say ‘Bless you’ when somebody sneezes! That’s religious terminology! You’re catering to religion when you use that language!”

On Language Chomsky
I see these mini-debates about language a fair amount in the atheosphere. Sometimes not so mini. They cropped up a bunch when Christopher Hitchens died and some atheists wrote tributes using the phrase “R.I.P.” (which is why I’m thinking about them now). And I’m of two minds about them. So this is going to be one of my “thinking out loud” pieces, where I don’t have a conclusion yet, and hope to come to a clearer one in the discussion thread.

On the one hand: As a rule, I much prefer to focus energy on content rather than form. If I’m going to spend time arguing with people, I’d rather spend it arguing about the content of what we think, rather than the words we choose to say it. Tone-trolling is among the least interesting forms of discourse, and I generally avoid it unless I think it’s necessary.

On the other hand: I think language is important. Like, duh. I’m a writer. To give what I hope is an obvious example: I think it makes a difference to say “police officer” and “firefighter” and “mail carrier” instead of “policeman” and “fireman” and “mailman.” And it bugs the crap out of me when people say “That’s so gay” as a putdown, or use words like “pussy” or “nancy” or “girly-man” as insults. I think hearing sexist or homophobic or other exclusionary language shapes the way women/ LGBT people/ other marginalized people think of ourselves/ themselves… and I think that making the effort to make our language inclusive helps us be more conscious about other forms of inclusion.

And I am, in fact, trying to purge religious language from my vocabulary, unless I’m specifically talking about religion. I try to remember to say “Gesundheit” when people sneeze instead of “Bless you.” (It’s German for “Health.”) I try to say “For goodness’ sake” instead of “For God’s sake.” I loathe the way that religion saturates the culture, to the point where it’s just assumed that everyone is religious and people are shocked and even offended to discover that it isn’t true. And I think using religious language to express secular ideas is one of the ways this saturation happens. (I entirely reject, for instance, the notion that the phrase “In God we trust” has no religious meaning, and that putting it on the money isn’t a slap in the face to atheists.) So I am trying to purge religious language from my vocabulary, unless it’s actually relevant — and I don’t mind when people point out examples of it in my own language.

But on the first hand again: Sometimes there just isn’t a good, purely secular substitute for a word or phrase. Alternatives often don’t convey the intended meaning as precisely, or they’re more obscure and not as widely known, or they also have religious implications as well as secular ones. What’s more, we don’t always agree about whether a given a word or phrase is secular or religious. When I use the word “transcendent,” for instance, I don’t mean “transcending the natural world and entering a supernatural realm.” I mean, “transcending ordinary day-to-day experience, and entering a state of hyper-awareness and a sense of intense connection with the rest of the universe.”

And when you start getting into the whole “The original meaning of this word is religious” argument, then the whole thing starts to get silly. I mean, the word “goodbye” originally meant “God bless you.” The word “Thursday” originally meant “Thor’s day.” Are you going to purge these words from your vocabulary, and scold other atheists for using them? Sure, it’s worth discussing whether a particular word or phrase has been entirely secularized or still retains a religious meaning. But it’s silly to argue that, because a word or phrase originally had its roots in a religious concept hundreds of years ago, the “real” meaning of the word is still religious, and we ought not to use it. Language changes. The “real” meaning of a word is whatever it’s understood to mean by the people using it.

So here’s my provisional, “thinking out loud” conclusion:

I don’t object to raising the issue of secularizing our language. I think these conversations are worth having.

But I’d like to see them be conversations, and not arguments.

I’d like to see the conversations about this topic be a little less hostile and defensive, and a little more relaxed. I’d like to see them acknowledge that there problems of secularizing language often don’t have good solutions. I’d like to see them acknowledge that reasonable people can disagree over whether a particular word or phrase has already been secularized. I’d like to see them be more empathetic, more “Yeah, this is tricky, we all have problems with this,” and less condescending and preachy. (See? Perfect example. What’s a good secular equivalent for “preachy”?) If we don’t want someone smacking us down as sniveling accomodationists every time we say “Goodbye, I’ll see you on Thursday,” then maybe we ought not to be smacking other people down when they say “R.I.P.” or “Bless you.” And I’d like to see these conversations acknowledge that this is only one issue for atheists among many, and that while it’s worth paying some attention to, we have more interesting and important issues on our plate.

And yes, I realize I’m tone-trolling here. These things happen.

Some Thoughts on Godless Language

107 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Godless Language

  1. 1

    I guess when I say R.I.P it’s either a kind of headline shorthand for “Attention! This person has died” or a way of saying, “your suffering has ended and we will remember you.” I don’t think of it as really religious. I know that’s a bit contradictory: they’re not resting but we are putting them away and putting the esteem or love we had for them to rest, moving it from an active regard to a memory.

  2. 2

    I go back and forth on this issue. I say “gesundheit” when people sneeze, not because I’m trying to needle them, but because I really don’t want them to think I’m a coreligionist and begin talking to me about Jesus. Sometimes I say “for goodness’ sake” or even the nonsensical “good heathens!” At other times, I’ll wish “Merry Christmas” to a Christian friend or even say “Happy Hanukkah” to a Jewish friend. I don’t feel any cognitive dissonance about this, to be honest, partly because I am openly atheist, so even my religious friends know that a few friendly pleasantries do not indicate a sudden shift in my beliefs — they just mean I value the friendships of those who do not think as I do.

    On the matter of “transcendence,” I do use the word, but I use it only to mean an experience that transports me beyond the here-and-now. I seem to recall Christopher Hitchens using the word in the same way when he spoke of gothic architecture and sacred music.

    At the end of the day, I don’t see a problem with appropriating religious terms, especially if one is an open atheist. At worst, it might cause momentary confusion, but at best, it can force believers to stop taking for granted that others believe as they do, whether or not those others are blessing a sneeze.

  3. 3

    I think there is something to be said for absconding with religion-based terms… making them our own. “RIP” is useful, quick way to recognize the death (note… not “passing”) of somebody. Still, I second-guessed myself as soon as I posted my first “RIP Christopher Hitchens” status on Facebook the other day.

  4. 4

    I struggle with purging my daily speech of religious expressions, too. I do my best to say “Oh my goodness” instead of “Oh my God,” but let’s face it: when I’m alone, and annoyed, oh-my-god is what comes out of my mouth. Also, I just can’t come up with a good secular substitute for “goddamn” as an adjective. Nothing else quite bursts through the mouth like “goddamn.” It’s infuriating that religion came and sprayed itself all over our profanity before secularism got there, but this is the world in which we live.

  5. 5

    I was having this discussion with my coworkers the day Hitch died. I think the important thing is how a possibly religious phrase is taken now.

    For example, some people say that “bless you” is from how people used to think your soul would leave your body (or the devil would enter it, or something silly like that) when you sneezed, and they were blessing you. No one believes that nowadays, so I think “bless you” is just a polite phrase that indicates concern for another person (not for loss of your soul, but maybe for ‘are you getting sick?’ or ‘do you have allergies?’).

    However, I do take issue with “Rest in peace,” because many people DO believe that Hitch’s soul is now…floating somewhere, or burning, or something…basically, they believe it’s possible for him to be resting, rather than him just being dead and gone. If atheists continue to say that, it perpetuates the idea that there is something about a human that lives on post-death (aside from their memory).

    However, saying RIP is not TEH WORST THING EVER, and I wouldn’t fight over it (though I would discuss it). 🙂

  6. 7

    I have been known to tone-troll on the phrase “Bless you!” I have started doing it less. I remember it took me awhile to change to “Gesundheit” simply because of habit, and why should I expect others to be able to do it easier than I? Really, even saying gesundheit is a superstition based concept. Why say anything? Sneezing is natural. Farting is natural too. We do not make wishes of good health when people do the later.

    I guess the main reason I get irritated by “Bless you” is because now my three-year-old has started saying it. It does not mean anything religious to him. He has no idea what religion is at this point so it is a little like Thursday in one sense. At the same time, though, my child adopting the phrase has a certain tendency to proliferate a religion based language where it is not needed in much the same way policeman proliferates gender bias.

    I still do not know how I feel on this one. I too am anxious to see more comments in this discussion.

  7. 8

    Zipper, ping pong, and xerox are actually brand names. However, we all call slide fasteners, that miniature tennis game and photocopies zipper, ping pong and xerox. Canadians seem to call all fizzy carbonated drinks “cokes”.

    In other words, common use has divorced the item from the original.

    “Gay” used to mean merry and festive. Now it means lesbian or homosexual. That’s another word that’s drifted from an older form.

    Teens in Asia use “OMG!” as an expression of surprise and are unaware that it is English for “oh my god!”. “Bless you” is tossed around for sneezes to simply be a politeness and an expression of mild concern for a sneezer. To say RIP when someone dies is kind of like removing your hat to salute the deceased. So, a lot of expressions with their roots in religion have drifted from the original. I mean, modern Christians really don’t believe a demon is going to inhabit someone who sneezes unless they apply a benediction.

  8. 9

    Don’t say ‘Bless you’ when somebody sneezes! That’s religious terminology! You’re catering to religion when you use that language!

    When someone sneezes you should slap them vigorously and yell, “Thanks for spreading germs, Typhoid Mary!” Or mutter “gesundheit” if you don’t feel like slapping.

  9. CJO

    Saying anything to someone after they sneeze is just irrational cultural baggage, but it’s harmless. I see no distinction. To me, “Bless you” is English for “Gesundheit”. Speech does not always (or even most of the time!) serve primarily to communicate information. I don’t say anything myself when someone near me sneezes, but I can’t imagine being bothered by it. It’s a cultural tic, nothing more.

    “Rest in peace”? More superstitious baggage. It means “don’t become a ghost” more than anything. There’s no specific religious message, like there is with “S/he’s in a better place now”, which does bother me, because, beyond being patently false, it trivializes others’ grief. It used to bother me intensely as a kid, this idea of heaven, because nobody acted like they believed it. Death was a bad thing; why were people going about paying lip service to a concept they clearly had very little conviction in? I always thought Christian funerals should be big, boisterous celebrations if they actually believed their dogma: “Uncle Fred’s in heaven now, yay! I can’t wait to get there myself.”

  10. 11

    R.I.P. doesn’t give me much heartburn. It’s good shorthand, it sounds awesome in Latin (Requiescat in pace), and I think there’s an argument to be made that, when using it, Atheists aren’t necessarily using religion-oriented language, but rather expressing their sincere hope that the dead person in question will not rise from their grave as a zombie, something I know we’re all worried about.

    On a side note, I feel strongly that a book/graphic novel about a zombie Christopher Hitchens could be very funny.

  11. 13

    I almost wrote “RIP Chris Hitchens” the other day, and caught myself. It seemed ridiculous to say that about someone so atheist, even though I’m an atheist and have used “RIP” before. Like the first commenter, I use it to mean, “you’re dead and I’ll remember you.” I would like to see all the typical things we say because they are so much a part of our cultural language, like Bless you, and RIP, become secularized (without a fight!). heh.

    Oh, and on the “God” on money thing, every once in a while, I go on a rant and scratch out “God” and put “Fed”. (Since we are trusting the Fed to set the value of our money, one would hope in a reasonable way).

  12. 14

    Perhaps, as a compromise, we adopt the Santorum strategy and replace the old insults with god words. Instead of ‘that’s so gay’, we could go ‘that’s so Jesus’.

    I think the verb for ‘child molestation’, for example, could become ‘to priest’. ‘Another coach is accused of priesting boys in the locker room’. Everyone would understand what was meant.

  13. 15

    Myself, I’m avoiding the phrase “R.I.P.” I think the word “rest” implies some sort of selfhood or consciousness that is resting, and I don’t think that’s the case with dead people. I don’t think dead people are resting, I think they no longer exist. I also think there are alternative ways to say “This person has died and I’m marking that,” without that implication. (I usually just go with their name, and their years of birth and death: e.g., “Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011.”)

    But I also don’t intend to make a federal case out of it when other people use the phrase. If someone asks me, I’ll say that I don’t care for the phrase and explain why — but I don’t volunteer it. (Except, obviously, in my own blog.)

  14. bob

    The politically correct way of saying mail man is person person.

    But seriously, how about the word “spiritual”? Can we use that to mean transcendent in the Greta sense? (ie feeling connection to the universe and a heightened sense of consciousness?) Or does using it imply that there is a spirit separate from that which is created by the brain/body?

  15. CJO

    Gesundheit translates as “good health.” No blessing or other religious verbiage involved.

    I know that. But I’m saying that it’s an instance where literal meaning is irrelevant, because no information is being conveyed. It’s a gesture, a speech act.

  16. 18

    The other day, I caught myself on the phrase “sure as Hell”. To a believer, that’s a certainty. But to an agnostic, “sure as Hell” would mean “not sure at all”? And to an atheist, it would mean “definitely not”…right?

    This could get confusing.

  17. 19

    Language changes. The “real” meaning of a word is whatever it’s understood to mean by the people using it.

    Yeah, ain’t it a bitch? 🙂 cue Ophelia…

    But seriously, I do this all the time. I like Adam Lee’s ” for truth’s sake”. It’s a statement of reason, where “for goodness sake” sounds a bit prissy and demure, when the context needs bite. Extreme sexual epithets tend to lose the audience in my experience so “for fuck’s sake” is reserved for serious pissed offness.

    RIP? I couldn’t post that for Hitch on Facebook, although that was my gut instinct. For someone else I might, because, well I would know what I meant.

    “Gesundheit”? every time, it’s a easy habit and the sentiment is cool

  18. 20

    I’ve been trying to “Damnit!” as an automatic expletive for a while now, and it’s pretty tough. So far the best strategy has been to pick something that feels both equally forceful and equally ridiculous to that phrase; thus, “Fuck-a-duck!” has been going strong for a while.

  19. 21

    On the subject of “Rest in peace”:

    I don’t have too much problem with this phrase, although I must admit I am “making excuses” when I use it.

    Let me explain and be a bit more clear- We all know, or can conceptualize an individual who, when faced with an accusation about their language (typically homophobic or sexist slurs), will attempt to justify it through hoop-jumping and an appeal to archaic meanings. To give an example, I once confronted a friend when he called someone a “bitch”. I jumped on him for being sexist, and he countered with a rationalization about how “bitch” really was a reference to a dog, so he was calling someone that and not using it to lower women.

    What this means, for me and the phrase “R.I.P” is this, and remember, I understand I am being slightly cheeky and disingenuous. “Rest” doesn’t necessarily mean spiritual rest. Consider it from the point of view of physics- the deceased is certainly resting, in that they are no longer moving. It is perfectly acceptable, and has no spiritual connotations, when one says “That glass is resting on the table”. So then, the deceased is “resting” in the ground/urn/ocean/preferred method of burial.

    Now, like I said, I understand that this is EXTREMELY disingenuous, but right now I don’t really know an alternate turn of phrase that conveys the same idea that this person has died, and conveys respect.

    The counterpoint to this is that I personally wince whenever I use the phrase “God bless you” or “Oh my God” to express surprise.

    As an aside, I don’t really mind “Jesus Christ” as an exclamation of frustration. I”m being cheeky again, but I don’t mind a little blasphemy.

    I think I am rambling, and not making a lot of sense, so I’m done here I think.

    Hope this made even a bit of sense….

  20. 22

    I tend to co-opt RIP into completely materialistic, non-spiritual terms anyway. When you’re dead, your body is certainly not moving, or, at rest. And what could possibly be more peaceful than the non-existence of consciousness? It’s no thoughts, no actions, no feeling: total and complete peace.

    As if heaven would be peaceful anyway! If there was a heaven, it would be a 24/7 party all the time! Not peaceful at all.

  21. 24

    I knew a single mother of a biggish toddler years ago who trained both herself and the child to use “Dog Breath!!!” as their only cussword. Much better than “fuck” fron 3-year-old lips.

  22. 25

    I think this depends wholly on whether the phrase, as commonly used, is actually intended to convey its literal meaning.

    I can’t see how “In God we trust” has any interesting meaning worth putting on money if it isn’t the literal one. What’s it supposed to convey other than a trust in God? I’m not American so I guess maybe I just don’t get it, but I at least can’t see any reason to use that phase if you don’t mean the religious connotations literally.

    But exclamations like “Bless you” or “Oh my God” or “Goddamn it” or “Jesus Christ”? Not even most religious people who use them really mean them literally. The meaning they communicate to other people is just “You sneezed”, “I’m surprised”, “I’m frustrated”, etc. They may have religious connotations if you think about them, but the religious meaning is not part of the packet of meaning they actually get across. If you don’t think about them, you don’t even notice whether people say “Oh my God” or “Oh my goodness”, because they mean exactly the same thing. I know I don’t notice unless people are using particularly awkward secular alternatives.

    So I think those are well on their way to becoming “Thursday” or “goodbye”, really. Some people still view them literally, but I doubt that’s more than a small minority of religious people. Personally, I use them casually all the time and have never found people assuming as a result that I am literally religious, but I suppose my experience may not be universal in that regard.

    As for “Rest in peace”, I don’t think that phrase is even particularly religious to begin with. Rather than implying the person is going to continue on doing stuff in the afterlife, it implies all that’s left for them now is ‘rest’, i.e. death. Sure, death and sleep aren’t the same thing, but I doubt anyone is going to go on a crusade (see what I did there?) against everything that compares the two. Whereas “He’s in a better place” overtly implies belief in an afterlife, “Rest in peace” just feels like a symbolic expression conveying respect for someone who has died, no more outright religious than, say, writing eulogies addressed “to” a dead person.

  23. 26

    Actually, the English days of the week are quite… Norse.

    Tuesday: Tyr’s Day
    Wednesday: Wodin’s Day
    Thursday: Thor’s Day
    Friday: Frigga’s Day
    Saturday: Saturn’s Day

    So, with Monday and Sunday referring respectively to the moon and the sun (and likely evoking at one point the mystical associations with them), we have five days that reference gods (4 Norse, 1 Roman). If we atheists really want to remove all reference to gods in language, then it’s going to be kind of hard. After all, if we want to be absolutist, then the phrase, “Monday through Friday” is problematic for referencing gods and the mystical moon, right?

  24. 29

    I’ve started saying “Jesus Balls!” a lot. I think it’s nonsensical enough to suitably “lampshade” the entire concept of religiously themed interjections. >.>

  25. 30

    I’m struck by the common problems I see in my distaste for religion in discourse, and my distaste for sexism there.

    If one is a writer who cares about words, he may find himself, despite complete sympathy with the goal of a non-sexist language, unwilling to give up sentences like this one, if only on grounds of taste.

    I’ve been watching for alternatives, and while I can often dodge the problem through rephrasing (e.g. one may find oneself), I just cannot bring myself to write something like “If one is a writer, they” – hey, WTF? It’s gender I dislike, not agreement in number! The only uglier alternative I’ve seen is use of those contrived pronouns.

    I’m heartened by the plasticity of language, and it seems to me that there is a path not yet taken. Speaking figuratively, I propose that we castrate both “him” and “man.” By that I mean that we could do to those words what we have done with “queer” and “gay” and many other words: we can decide, collectively and consciously, to co-opt them and mutate their meanings.

    I lived in Sweden, and my strong impression is that the language is much less strongly gendered than English. For instance, the word “man” means “one”, not “male human”, although it can be used in the latter sense. If that’s correct, then I see it as some evidence that my plan could succeed.

    Why “he”, not “her”? OK, we’ll do it to “her” too. Pretty soon, we’ll be saying “God be with you” to the problem.

  26. 31

    @ Alecthar; I like the way you think! Zombie Hitchens would be awesome.

    I use RIP as an acknowledgement of a person’s death; on the board in my classroom (I teach Science in a Catholic school — I’m the village atheist) I put a daily “today in science history” fact. Sometimes it’s the death of a scientist, and I’ll use RIP to acknowledge that. If anyone asks what it means, I give them the Latin first. OTOH, I work bloody hard right now, and when I’m dead, I’ll be making a meaningful contribution to the carbon cycle, so it won’t be very restful at all!

    I don’t mind a little blaspheming once in a while; although I don’t believe in any gods, I’ll occasionally use “holy Zeus” as a tongue-in-cheek expletive. But usually it’s “wow”, “goodness me” (which makes zero sense) or something similarly child-friendly.

  27. 32

    Most times, I go by the intended meaning and not the origin of the word.

    However, there is a problem I’m sure you noticed before:
    I sometimes get an argument that such use of words is a “proof” that I’m actually a believer, and I’m just a humble forum commenter.
    I’m willing to bet that as a professional atheist writer you’ve seen this kind of argument many times, and I don’t need to tell you how such words were manipulated with people like Einstein.

    In this context, the dollar bill writing is even more annoying.
    I really wouldn’t mind the writing itself, I hardly notice such things.
    But not only do people use this argument that I’m actually a theist just for having money in my pocket, at the same time, the dollar bill is also used as a “proof” that the US is a Christian nation.

    So it’s not the words or symbols themselves that bother me. I don’t mind if an expression I use came from religion or not, as long as it is not used as an argument to tell me what I REALLY believe at, or what I should believe in.

  28. 33

    I meant to say, I don’t say anything when someone sneezes. I don’t say anything when someone farts, burps or blows their nose either. Why should I? It’s not like I’m placing a benediction on them, in case they’re sneezing because they’re about to fall down dead. (See what I did there?)

  29. 34

    It’s an uncommon atheist, IMO, who doesn’t say “GodDAMNit!” when they stub a toe in the dark, or lose three pages of unsaved prose due to an accidental mouseclick. I don’t have much of a problem with profanity, in the sense of “treating the sacred with abuse, irreverence, or contempt.” I try to refrain from using phrases such as “God only knows,” though I might use the acronym GOKASAT once in a while with certain friends [god only knows and she ain’t talkin’].

    I don’t have a problem with R.I.P., especially in the case of someone who died as painfully as Hitchens, though in recent days I’ve seen some folks get mighty huffy about it. ‘Tis a good thing that English is not as steeped in religion as some of the Romance languages — heaven forfend we bid our friends “adios.”

  30. 35

    Re hamstur’s

    The other day, I caught myself on the phrase “sure as Hell”. To a believer, that’s a certainty. But to an agnostic, “sure as Hell” would mean “not sure at all”? And to an atheist, it would mean “definitely not”…right?

    This could get confusing.

    I have been known to use “I’m sure that’s the gospel truth” to
    mean “I think the listener believes it, and I think it is BS” 🙂

    Less flippantly:
    I very much agree that avoiding arguments over language is
    generally a good idea. I would even suggest that doing things
    like substituting phrases like “thank goodness” for “thank god”
    can distract too much if one is trying to make a substantive
    argument, and one wants the general public to follow the points
    that one is making, rather than to snag on an unusual choice
    of phrasing. To make an analogy with another community:
    In discussions of nanotechnology Dr. Eric Drexler has used
    some coined terms and phrases like eutactic and “machine phase”
    There are good reasons for using them. Nonetheless, I suspect
    that they carry some ingroup flavors that are not
    helpful if one is trying to persuade an outgroup audience.

    I do think that phrases like “that’s so gay” should be avoided
    or attacked, but they have the special malice of directly
    attacking a group of living, breathing people. I’d add
    “that’s so old” to that category as well (an odd case, since
    almost everyone would prefer to eventually join the disparaged

  31. 36

    In dutch I don’t know of any expressions other than ‘gezondheid’, which has the same meaning as gesundheit. Also I don’t really come across the RIP all that much, usually people say ‘gecondoleert’ when talking to someone related to the deceased person. It means you offer your condolences. And I think that makes sense, the living need your sympathy/empathy, the dead are dead. As for swear words other than goddamn, many dutch swear words are names of diseases, like klere (cholera), typhus, kanker (cancer) etcetera. We’re never short on secular alternatives. 😛

  32. 37

    I support the idea of coming up with idioms that more closely resemble what we mean by them and that would convey same meaning to a listener. With respect to a person who died – what is left of the person are the memories. Jews often refer to the dead with ‘of blessed memory’. Perhaps we can try ‘of treasured memory’ ‘of respected memory’ ‘of fond memory’ etc as the case may be. (No, I have no intention of making a nuisance of myself over this, just an idea.)

  33. 38

    This ties in nicely to the whole “Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays” kerfuffle. I know people who will throw “Merry Christmas” in your face with the same inflection (and intention, I believe) as “fuck you” if you dare to wish them a happy holiday. But of course, holiday is just short for “holy day”, so you just can’t win. Personally, I’ve taken the British custom of wishing people a “happy Christmas”. I find it brings people up short, and they don’t quite know how to respond.

    When someone sneezes, I tend to say “salud” (Spanish for “health”), which is the custom in Mexico,and which, like the German expression, makes more sense than “bless you.”

    My Dad used “Bless You” when someone sneezed, but only one time. If you sneezed more than once, he would say, “I did my part; you’re on your own now.”

  34. 39

    This is one of my favorite arguments, though I admit I don’t get to have it very often. I find I frequently have little option but to use spiritually laden language, and I generally work from the pragmatic position that I’ll do what I must to get through this conversation and hope for a future where better language exists for discussing deep emotional experiences in not quite so intensely clinical terms.

    I do tend to preface the conversations with a quick nod to the fact that our language has no good secular language for deep emotional experience, so that I can defend my usage as not affirming a metaphysical world in good faith. (That’s another one — good and bad faith are incredibly useful terms. I feel better about them because of their association with Sartre, though.)

    As far as exclamations, I use religious ones sometimes. Jesus Christ and Goddamn are near the top of the list on that count. But I also use fracking and gorram (thanks, science fiction!), “Fuck if I know” and “I haven’t the foggiest notion” in place of “God only knows,” and “Crikey” and “Bloody” quite frequently as generic curses.

    As for the religious ones, I tend to use them mostly in contexts that would offend the very religious, anyway — Jesus Christ isn’t exactly a pious response to stubbing your toe, and “Oh God” has some particularly sinful applications, being unmarried as I am.

  35. 40

    I recall some of the atheistically correct dismissing Elizabeth Warren as a borderline theocrat or something like it because in her wonderful “Nobody got rich on his own” soliloquy she used the phrase “God bless,” in its “Well, good for you!” sense. To those folks I say study this illustration.

  36. 41

    My 2 favorite blasphemous curses are “Jesus Penis!” and “God’s Balls!”

    Great for those stub-the-toe-in-the-dark moments, and they get a nice reaction from overhearers–either indignant gasps or uproarious guffaws, depending.

  37. 43

    I usually say “Excuse me” when I sneeze, as I would when I cough. I’ve found that it prevents most people from saying anything about the fact that I’ve just sneezed. Oddly, here in North Texas, people have pretty much stopped saying “Bless you.” Sneezes often pass without comment.

    “RIP” is an interesting one. I agree that the connotations are decidedly religious, but on the other hand I find it preferable to the quite-a-lot more religious language that is also common. When my grandmother died, I would have preferred to hear my mother say something like “I hope she rests in peace” than the “She is in Heaven now. I hope she’s happy” that she actually used.

    I dunno. It’s a bit of a conundrum.

  38. 44

    A lot of the significance of religiously tinged language depends on the socio-cultural context. When I lived in England, I thought nothing of saying “bless you” when someone sneezed because doing so wouldn’t be seized upon by someone as evidence that “aha! see, this is a Christian nation!” whereas in the US I make a point of saying “Gesundheit” to forestall any such response.

    This conversation also reminds me of a moment on a quiz show on Channel 4 (UK) in which the host, Charlie Brooker, in an outburst of exasperation exclaimed “Fuck a Jesus!” whereupon David Mitchell (of Mitchell & Webb “Homeopathic Accident & Emergency” sketch fame) replied “I won’t, thanks.”

  39. 45

    I think cutting ourselves off from chunks of the language is silly. “Bless you” is the thing we say when people sneeze. If you wish to avoid it because it has religious roots, then you should also avoid “good bye” because its etymology goes back to a form of “God be with you”. (Now I happen to actually say “Gesundheit”, but that is because that is how we did it in my family.)

    I really take the opposite approach. I would like to use the word “pray” to include “intensely hope”. I really think that it would be a mistake to surrender words and expressions that have religious overtones. That feels a little too “newspeakish” to me.

    On a similar note, I will continue to enjoy gospel music and the music of J.S. Bach. I will not shut myself off from parts of the culture I enjoy, just because they are associated with religion.

  40. 46

    I and a few of my friends say “Hasselhoff!” when someone sneezes. It was started by a coworker and originally had nothing to do with replacing religious phrasing – he just liked the Hoff quite a bit and found a way to incorporate his name into daily life more. 🙂

    That coworker has since left the company and those of us of a non-religious bent do use it specifically in place of more religious phrasing.

    Also, it’s fun to say.

  41. 47


    I just cannot bring myself to write something like “If one is a writer, they” – hey, WTF? It’s gender I dislike, not agreement in number!

    Since the singular they (them, their etc.) has been in use for about five centuries there’s really no valid reason to eschew it. (Also known as “If it was good enough for Shakespeare and Austen….”) If that doesn’t cut it for you though, you can always embrace Steven Pinker’s suggestion that “they” and “they” are homonyms.

    To use Pinker’s own example, how else would you say:

    “Mary saw everyone before John noticed them.”

  42. 49

    I wouldn’t have a problem with Rest in Peace if it weren’t from a still used prayer. To me that’s like saying, “The serenity prayer is just a twelve-step exercise.” No it’s not. The “prayer” bit makes it a religious thing.

    I think if something is still being used daily in its original or previous context it’s very hard to reclaim it as something new. For example, as a queer person, I personally can’t claim or use words like ‘fag’ or ‘dyke’, because the hurtful usages of the words are still too predominant. The same, you’ll notice, I don’t think can be said about the word ‘queer’.

    Language is pretty damn subjective at times.

  43. 50

    One thing I think e can all agree on, though, is that it’s batshit crazy for religious people to point to atheists using language that originally had or sometimes has religious connotations (e.g. Bless you, goddammit, etc.) and say, “SEE, YOU TOTALLY BELIEVE IN GOD!”

    Roughly the same as saying all of us believe in Thor since we all call Thursday Thursday.

    I actually thought that was where you were going with this. I’m SO tired of seeing people say the above. It makes no sense whatsoever, and yet it still happens on a regular basis.

    I’ve you’ve seen the Dane Cook stand-up bit about talking to an asshole atheist: a few of my friends and I briefly tried to develop the habit of saying “When you die nothing happens”, instead of “Bless you” just for kicks. Turns out that’s a really long phrase to say every time someone sneezes, though, and we weren’t dedicated enough to keep up with it.

  44. 51


    It’s purely a question of taste, for me. I’m aware that the usage is blessed by long duration. I don’t care. I’m too stuck in the mud of eighth-grade grammar to let that influence me! I LIKE agreement in number.

  45. 52

    @ Alecthar; I like the way you think! Zombie Hitchens would be awesome.

    I live by (at least) 2 axioms: Science is the best way we have of discerning truths about our world, and everything is cooler with zombies.

    And speaking of the intersection of zombies and religion-tinged speech, does this mean I have to stop saying “Sweet Zombie Jesus!” Because if so, I can’t support the secularization of language, unless I can reserve the right to make Futurama references.

  46. 54

    Saying anything when someone else sneezes is stupid. I used to say “Bless you”, and even taught my daughter to say that, but a couple years ago, I realized my own stupidity and made it right.

    I was at a public pool this past summer, when someone asked me what the big red “A” tattoo on my arm was. I told him it stood for “Atheist”. For whatever reason, his next question was what I thought one should say when another person sneezed, because “Bless you” was clearly religious. I told him the only sensible thing was for the person who sneezed to say “Excuse me”, and that there was no onus whatsoever on others to say anything.

    The only reason you feel an urge to offer a verbal response to a sneeze is because you were indoctrinated into an idiotic, meaningless religious format which expects you to offer an idiotic, meaningless “Bless you”.

    Fuck that, I say. If you don’t excuse yourself after sneezing, or if you expect me to offer a religious expression, you’re an asshole.

  47. 56

    Why excuse yourself after sneezing? Are you serious? Because it’s intrusive in a social situation. The sound can be disruptive (especially for idiots who vocalize sneezes), and the air and phlegm goes through the nose at up to 100 MPH, which can spread disease and be simply disgusting for obvious reasons.

  48. 57


    I see a sneeze as a chance to express a little empathy, a bit of common humanity. Personally, I find “Bless you” as empty of religious meaning as “goodbye,” but opinions differ, so I say “prosit,” which is Swedish for “gesundheit.”

    Sweet zombie Jesus, now I think I may have a cold. Maybe it’s just allergies. Do you get those? I guess we all do. Prosit.

  49. 58

    A lot of good food for thought. For whatever reason, I never thought twice about RIP..I guess since I grew up hearing it (and used to be religious), it just sorta became a habit. I will definitely have to work on that.

    I have worked on other parts of language. Instead of “Bless you” when someone sneezes, I started saying “excuse you” (in a not condescending manner), although I like “Gesundheit” a lot better and may have to switch to it 🙂

    As far as cussing, I used to say goddammit a lot, but now I have replaced it with just dammit (or some variation of fuck). This shift was unconscious though, and I just now realized it…interesting…

  50. 59

    I definitely wouldn’t refer to this posting as tone-trolling. The entire content suggest a genuine call for peace and unity among atheists.

    What I find interesting here is that while a specific issue is being addressed, the entry actually gains power when you spread it out over a plethora of issues that atheists must confront with eachother.

    The title, itself, is merely a lure. When a salesman or a con artist does something like this, we tend to get irritated. In this case, however, the reader is gently guided into a much broader dialogue that he or she knows is essential for the freethinking community to have. Unlike the work of a salesmen, the mutual benefit for everyone is on the table and obvious.

  51. 60

    I’ve never felt that R.I.P. is a particularly religious sentiment, though I see why it could be taken that way. To me it’s merely a euphemism stating that death is the end of suffering, with oblivion being the “peace” that has been found.

  52. Syd

    Interesting topic. I have been arguing with myself lately about me wishing people a Merry Christmas. Growing up in Australia Christmas has never been religious, it has always been about family, presents, holidays and over-eating, religion never really played a part. So when I wish someone a Merry Christmas I am simply wishing someone all those good things, but as an atheist should I be avoiding the term altogether? Haven’t been able to reach a conclusion as yet.

  53. 62

    Unless they’ve just sneezed several times in a row and I’m asking them if they need some medicine, I don’t say anything when someone sneezes. Anything you say is going to be a pointless exercise in perfunctory social compliance, and not an actual expression of concern. Honestly, it annoys me slightly that people feel the need to waste their time with it, even if they aren’t actually expressing any sort of religious idea.

  54. 63

    @Sir Shplane,

    Anything you say is going to be a pointless exercise in perfunctory social compliance, and not an actual expression of concern.

    You’re right that there is no expression of concern, but I think you’re wrong to dismiss the value of such social exchanges. They’re a rare instance of communication available among strangers, and one which acknowledges our common susceptibility to the common cold, to boot. It’s like, when you’re crossing with the light, looking through the windshields and making eye contact with the waiting drivers. It’s a kind of social Metamucil.

    Of course there is nothing to force compliance with the practice; still, as you imply, social pressure can all too easily become dictatorial. But I haven’t worried too much about that since I first let my freak flag fly.

  55. 64

    I’m not even close to being proficient in German, but neither of the English translations of Gesundheit mentioned above (“health” and “good health”) seem quite on the mark to me. The German suffix “heit” corresponds to the English suffix “ness”. Therefore, a more literal translation of “Gesundheit” is “healthfulness” or, as Google translate says, “healthiness”.

  56. 65

    @Bill Rubin

    I’ll put my ignorance of German up against anyone’s, but here’s my guess.

    “heit” does indeed correspond to “ness,” and “sund” to English “sound”, so “sundheit” is roughly “soundness,” or good health. “ge” is kind of imperative, meaning something like “have,” so gesundheit means “have soundness,” or “have good health.”

    How does that strike you?

  57. F

    Why say anything non-specific when someone sneezes? “I hope that cold runs its course soon”, “Get out of the dust”, “Allergies suck”, “Stop that”, or “Would you mind covering your face when you do that?”, are the sort of direction I head. I “excuse” myself when I sneeze. If it is “polite” to excuse oneself for an eructation or flatulence or bumping into someone, why would it not be the polite thing to do when sneezing?

    RIP just plain annoys me for some reason, regardless that it stands for “rest in peace”. YMMV.

    I freely use religious words for exclamatory purposes. They don’t mean anything in the same way “Fuck!” doesn’t mean anything. And they annoy religious prudes, which may be my aim at the time if I’m not alone.

    Nothing about transcend is inherently religious.

  58. 68

    I am lucky to be like the rest of the non-USAians in that the background level of religious nonsense here is so low that these phrases have little to no religious connotations any more.

    The thing I find disturbing is that the USA is so steeped in woo that this is a real issue for you.

    Anyway, I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas. (The Australian meaning – A family oriented celebration of summer. It doesn’t feel right to call it anything else.)

  59. 69

    @Bill Rubin, #64

    Doesn’t quite work that way.

    (I’m Dutch, and our ‘gezondheid’ works the same as ‘gesundheit,’ so I’m declaring myself qualified to comment.)

    -heit/-keit (or Dutch -heid) are suffixes that turn adjectives into nouns. But you only need to do that if you don’t have a noun already!

    In English, the noun is ‘health.’ Adjective derived from that is ‘healthy’. You can do some sort of backformation to ‘healthiness’ but that has a different meaning than ‘health’. So “How’s your health?/I’m healthy./He’s always crowing about his healthiness.”

    ‘Gesund(heit)’ works more like the English ‘blue’. Blue is the adjective, and you can turn it into a noun by adding -ness. So “I’m blue./How’s your blueness?” There’s no way to get to bluenessness unless you’re feeling experimental, and if anyone were crowing about anything, it’d still be his blueness.

    In Dutch, the adjective is ‘gezond’ and the noun you derive from that is ‘gezondheid’. So when someone says ‘gezondheid’ to a sneezing person, that literally just means health.

    However, I always assumed it was short for ‘op je gezondheid’ (which is used in formal toasts/when drinking), which translates to ‘to your health’.

  60. 70

    Um … in the spirit of being contrary, isn’t saying anything at all when someone sneezes a remnant of superstitious thinking? Whether it’s ‘God bless you’ or ‘good health’, it’s still basically intoning ritual words.

    Shouldn’t the atheist thing be to stay silent, or given that we New Atheists are always meant to be so angry, perhaps ‘take some fucking Advil’?

    Is it really nice or some valuable social ritual to respond to sneezing? Particularly when most people do it entirely reflexively. If you sneeze and someone you don’t know says ‘Gesundheit’ does that really make you feel better or more loved?

  61. 74

    I didn’t think of R.I.P. as a religious thing until I read this. I was thought of it metaphorically. Yeah, they aren’t resting in any meaningful way, but their striving, struggling, and suffering has ended. And obviously saying it has no real effect on them, but neither does wishing someone “good luck”.

    I personally try to say “bless you” when someone sneezes as little as possible. I will depending on the company I’m in and their expectations, but among close friends I won’t because I think it’s pointless and archaic. It’s only “polite” to say “bless you” because some people expect it, and it’s completely unnecessary and not actually helpful in anyway. I also try to say “excuse me” when I sneeze to try to flip expectations.

  62. 75

    I find ‘Goodbye’ to be a suitable replacement for R.I.P. – I caught myself almost using it the other day but decided that Goodbye worked better, it’s more final & doesn’t imply that the person’s soul or being (or whatever) is still floating around somewhere.

  63. 76

    “The ‘real’ meaning of a word is whatever it’s understood to mean by the people using it.”

    If I say, “You really hit it out of the park with this blog post”, there’s an illocutionary act that is simply, you wrote an excellent post (which you did, by the way). It’s possible that my comment would lead to an perlocutionary act – you responding to my comment, for example.

    So, I wonder if it’s possible to express and interpret a speech act (You really hit it out of the park…) using an idiomatic sports expression in this case that doesn’t necessarily transmit the notion that I’m a sports aficionado. I’m sure there’s research out there looking at the effects of perlocutionary acts given certain language, but in my own experience, I’ve never felt compelled to assume one’s religious convictions because certain religious idioms were used. I would assume that atheists would naturally say, “for goodness’ sake”, but at the same time would not assume that the person using this expression were an atheist. The question is how much does language influence a perlocutionary act?

  64. 77

    I automatically say “Bless you” when someone sneezes, although I have been criticised for doing so.
    My thinking is that when we have had atheism as an accepted stance all over the world for the same period of time as we have had religion, we can then think about using a different language, otherwise we should just accept that some people say it automatically. I mean, I have tried saying, “For goddess’s sake” and “By the gods” and all that happens is I feel a bit of a twonk. And a pretentious twonk at that.
    I also say “Excuse me” when I sneeze and also when I yawn. A friend of mine’s daughter once asked her mother when I was in earshot, “Is yawning rude?” because of this. For me, it’s not a sign of boredom, so much as a sign my sugars are a bit out of whack, and I desperately need five minutes shut eye. But it’s something I was taught as a child, and I don’t see any reason to stop it.

    As for swear words, I dislike them intensely, but I do use them when I am really, really angry. Or shocked about something. Another friend used a phrase I love which is ,”Hell’s bells and buckets of blood” but not particularly in a religious way, along with “Pig’s bladders” which is very good when enunciating it. I would love to introduce “Slart” which means ‘any woman lucky enough to be going out with some celebrity I really fancy’. I do say, “Christmas” a lot, and try not to take the “Lord’s” name in vain (“Blasphemy is a victimless crime!”) only because such usage should be reduced to the same status as Thursday.
    To say something is “Queer” to mean bad is appalling. And whilst I like Jeremy Clarkson, and was certain he was joking over the striking workers, he should have been massively slapped down for calling a car he didn’t like “Ginger beer”. That’s like a casual way of saying the same thing, in a “It’s rhyming slang, so obviously it doesn’t count” kind of way, which is just cowardly.

    I think I’m thinking out loud as well….

  65. 78

    Though I’m an atheist, I do say bless you (sometimes), and R.I.P, and maybe even thank god, and other things like that. The reason I perpetuate these expressions? I really can’t be asked to give shit.

  66. 79

    Maybe I should start saying things like “Andraste’s flaming sword!” (to express frustration) and “By Azura!” (to express surprise)? Always keep people wondering what deity I’m tlaking about?

  67. 80

    The first comment has sparked an idea: why not reconsider the acronym ‘RIP’ as ‘remembered in passing’, which would be a more accurate reflection of how the term seems to be used these days. Rather than making any suggestion about any sort of afterlife, it is actually a contemplation of the life that that person has lived, and acknowledges that they no longer physically share this world with us. (And before anyone starts, ‘passing’ can as easily mean ‘passing from a state of living to a state of death’ as much as any religious connotation).

  68. 81

    In secularizing our language, it can sometimes be an opportunity to be creative, especially with expletives. These are some of the ones I’ve used:

    “Oh my stars and garters!” (An X-Men reference, so +1 geek cred)
    “Snickerdoodles!” (Handy for those with children)
    “Goodness gracious me!” (Skirting the edges of religion, sure)
    “In dog we trust”

  69. Jim

    I’d always thought of the “rest” in “rest in peace” as being “eternal rest.” You don’t do anything, ever again, which is sort of the opposite of most concepts of the afterlife. That said, I’m a theist, so I don’t much mind if it is religious.

    I will say, out of respect for my atheist friends, I’ve referred to Hitchens’ passing as being tragic and him being a writer I will sorely miss, and simply skipping over talking about his eternal feat. Which, honestly, isn’t something I’m 100% certain on anyway.

  70. 83

    British / Australian / New Zealand English doesn’t rely on “Goddamn”, because we have the word “bloody”. Although even that supposedly originated as a contraction of “By Our Lady”. Likewise, “Strewth!” (a mainly Antipodean expression of surprise) was originally a contraction of “God’s Truth”. And “For crying out loud!” almost certainly originated as a euphemism for “for Christ’s sake”.

    Religious language is hiding under every stone. It probably doesn’t help that one of the major influences on the English language was the King James Bible.

    I never say anything when someone sneezes. For one thing, it’s none of my business. For another, they probably feel bad enough already about having snozen and don’t want any more attention drawn to it. (Actually, if they snoze several times in a row, or seemed to be having difficulty breathing, I’d probably ask them if they were OK. This is another very British thing: waiting until someone is evidently not OK before asking them.)

    And “transcend” has perfectly secular uses. Symbolic links transcend file systems; hard links transcend chroots.

  71. 84

    I don’t get all the hubbub over RIP. Death, as far as the person who dies is concerned, is no different from being in an unconscious state of sleep–it’s the nap you never awaken from (no matter how horrible it was going into it).

    And for the ones still alive, it isn’t so much the person who is resting, but the memory of the person. You don’t really get to interact with the real person again after they have died, so the memory of them is all you have left (which could change with the right technology, though). In that sense, it is the shared memory of the person that is being invoked by RIP, not the person themself.

    But more than being congruent with a materialist perspective where rest/sleep is indistinguishable from death for the person who died and RIP meaning the memory of the person for those still alive, RIP makes flat out no sense for most theists, either, other than the really kooky ones. What would it mean for someone to literally think that a dead body is only resting undisturbed? Well, it would mean that the body would be capable of waking up–of resurrecting–at a future date and it would mean that it is not rotting or capable of being arisen and awakened as what’s left of the rotting corpse or magically restored on resurrection to a prior state somehow. Now, who believes that anymore?

    I suppose if one were a dualist, then it might make sense only if RIP referred to the soul or spirit or ghost or something instead of the physical body, but atheists aren’t dualists (or if one is, one ought to not call oneself an atheist) so we can’t possibly be referring to a soul or spirit or ghost when we use RIP.

  72. 85

    Well, it would mean that the body would be capable of waking up–of resurrecting–at a future date and it would mean that it is not rotting or capable of being arisen and awakened as what’s left of the rotting corpse or magically restored on resurrection to a prior state somehow. Now, who believes that anymore?

    please tell me this is irony!

  73. 86

    @Steve Bowen

    I did not write that with irony! I wasn’t talking about beliefs about Jesus or reincarnation, but about what theists believe about real people they have known who were buried or cremated or whatever. When most theists use RIP, they are not referring to a belief in zombification.

  74. 87

    I never thought of R.I.P. as being theistic, but rather sort of stuffy and archaic, kind of foggy graveyard, mouldery headstone-ish.
    My cursing is whatever flies to mind at the time of injury/surprise/shock. I don’t avoid “goddamn” or “jesus christ” because the goddists do consider it blasphemy, and I kind of like to push their buttons. I also think the watered-down ones like “my goodness” or “cheese and crackers!” sound childish or schoolmarmish. I like the classics: fuck, shit, damn, dammit, sonnovabitch, goddammit, etc. And “pigfuckers.” That’s just my personal favorite.
    The “bless you’s” fly around my office like crazy. We all have allergies or something. I say about one per person per day, then drop it. I’m trying to train my husband to not say anything. He wants to “gesundheit” every sneeze, cough, burp, and fart.

  75. 88

    The only reason I use theistic language instead of carefully thinking of alternatives, especially in the case of blasphemous phrases and swearing is that it’s a round rejection of the “values” I was brought up to believe. See, I was raised Mormon, and if you know anything about Mormons, you know that they tend to steer sharply away from using the word “God” too much, as well as frown on casual, and especially strong, foul language. Saying “God dammit” for example, not only blasphemes but uses what is considered to Mormons a swear word. And any word not commonly censored on prime-time television is strictly prohibited. Also, uttering a phrase like “for goodness sake” sounds far too puritan to me. And of there is any doubt in anyone’s mind, such as when someone comments on Facebook about my language choice, knowing full well I am an outspoken atheist and anti-theist, I explain not only my stance on blasphemy (my favorite victimless crime!) but also the fact that it’s yet one more way I’m striking out at the repressive culture I was brought up in.

  76. 89

    Hmmmm … doing my own bit of thinking out loud here. For myself, I have no problem using religious imagery or metaphor in my language. I’ll happily describe something as ‘written in stone’ or the ‘holy grail’. I don’t see that as any different to borrowing imagery from other literary sources like Shakespeare or Dickens or Burns.

    But I think things like RIP and ‘bless you’ go beyond metaphor, and using them feels to me like expressing a religious sentiment, which is something I feel less comfortable with. But where does that line get drawn? The planets of our solar system were names after gods in the Roman pantheon. Perhaps we can similarly regard the days of the week as being ‘named after’ the Norse pantheon. Maybe, as an ex-Christian living in a self-professed Christian country, it’s only expressions of Christianity that make me uncomfortable.

    Something to ponder …

  77. 90

    -Perhaps the acceptance by many people that the Norse gods do not exist allows them to continue using terms derived from them. Conversely, since Christianity continues to influence believers and non believers, tolerating words/phrases with a Christian origin is more difficult.


  78. 91

    > No one believes that nowadays, so I think “bless you” is just a polite phrase that indicates concern for another person (not for loss of your soul, but maybe for ‘are you getting sick?’ or ‘do you have allergies?’).<

    -I don't like 'bless you'. I think it brings with it the sentiment that a higher power is performing some deed for you.
    Now that I think about it, *WHY* do we need a phrase to say after people sneeze? Is there a phrase for post belch? Post fart? Post eyeblink? Post neck/back pop? Perhaps we simply don't need to say *anything*.


  79. 92

    >I think the verb for ‘child molestation’, for example, could become ‘to priest’. <

    I don’t like that one (though I agree with your basic idea). There are plenty of priests who haven’t engaged in child rape, abuse or molestation. It would be unfair to use a phrase that could be seen as referring to *all* priests.


  80. 93

    > “Oh my stars and garters!” (An X-Men reference, so +1 geek cred)<

    I’m partial to “By the White Wolf”. Heck I’ve been reading comic books for so long, I’ve found myself using phrases reflexively (while these and other phrases may have origins outside of the comic book world, my introduction to them was found within). I’ve said “Holy Moly”, “Great Scott”, and “Holy Shark Repellent” more than once. I realized a few years ago that I even use “darlin’ ” a LOT while tending bar (+2 geek points for anyone who knows the fictional character who says that).
    I’m currently trying to train my brain to substitute Zeus, Odin, or Thor in place of “God” when I’m thinking or talking to myself (Zeus-dammit, For Odin’s sake, Thor only knows). I’d like to get to the point that I say these GNU phrases reflexively in conversation.


  81. 94

    And “transcend” has perfectly secular uses. Symbolic links transcend file systems; hard links transcend chroots.

    Can I please start claiming I’m a transcendentalist because I formatted my laptop’s hard drive with ext4?

  82. 95

    I find much deliberately non-religious language to be kinda clunky (a bit like much ‘non-sexist’ language – I’m quite happy with ‘chairman’ or ‘chairwoman’ as appropriate, the PC version – ‘chair’ – means one is addressing a piece of furniture, which is daft). I do, however, usually replace ‘for Gods sake’ with ‘for fuck’s sake’, unfortunately this does not make literal sense and has its own drawbacks in company.
    I also tend to say ‘Jesus Christ’ quite often, though since it is usually when I have just dropped a hammer on my foot it comes out as ‘Jesus fucking Christ’ which credits Him with an active sex life which has, so far as I’m aware, no scriptural basis.
    I guess on the whole I have more trouble coming up with inoffensive expressions on such emotionally charged occasions, than worrying about religious implications.

  83. 96

    I, personally, see no problem with the terminology “RIP”. Does Newtonian law suggest, or otherwise imply, a body as an animate or inanimate object? No. Does it suggest, or otherwise imply, that it does not apply to a particular group of beings? No. As a co-inhabitant of the universe, I understand I am subject to these laws – whether dead or alive.

    “A body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it, and a body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force.”

    Rest implies rest, sleep implies sleep. If the phrase were “SIP”, the implication would be that one would wake up. If you’re dead, “SIP” need not apply outside of religious context. A dead body becomes inanimate and will remain in rest unless an outside force causes acceleration, therefore “RIP” is perfectly applicable (probably more-so than admitted) for use by the atheist community.

    As far as other religious non sequiturs, I admittedly struggle with some of them. I’ve replaced “Jesus Christ” with “Carl Sagan” but that’s about it. There are plenty of words, more and more words are being forgotten every day. My feelings are, you can use big words and if people don’t understand you, they can look them up. Simply tell them that conversation with you requires a dictionary! 🙂

  84. 97

    I started replacing the word “god” in a lot of expressions with the word “squid,” thanks to Our Squidly Overlord. 🙂 “Oh, for squid’s sake!” does tend to unsettle the mundanes, without sounding too prissy.

    Personally, I like (and use) In Memoriam all the time (far too often of late). I don’t think it sounds pretentious, but maybe my normal idiolect is just sufficiently highfalutin’ that I can get away with it.

    I have to start remembering to say “Labriut!” instead of “Bless you.” It’s the precise Hebrew equivalent of “Gesundheit,” and sounds prettier.

  85. 98

    Although I’m a native speaker of English, I’ve been saying “Gesundheit” all my life. I have my mom to thank for that. A native German speaker, she always said it after someone sneezed.

    @phhht, #65
    I really like your observation that “soundness” (literally translated from “Sundheit”) is meant in the sense of “good health” in the context of sneezing, so that “Gesundheit” therefore means “have good health”.

    @Maartje, #69
    Although “gezondheid” (Dutch) literally translates into “health” in some contexts, the intended meaning after sneezing seems closer to “have good health”, as phhht pointed out. But I really like your observation that “gezondheid” may be short for “op ye gezondheid”, which corresponds to “to your health”.

    Combining both of the above excellent comments, I conclude that “Gesundheit” is best translated literally as “have good health”, but that this may just be an abbreviation of “to your (having) good health”. So “Gesundheit” can simply be “explained” as a way to formally express the wish that you have good health.

    My mom probably told me that.

  86. 99

    I enjoy a good sneeze (and I am generally careful – though probably not infallible – not to spread my mucus to others).

    So, I think a good response to a sneeze is, “Nice one!” or possibly, “AAAHH! You startled me!”

    (Or, in the case of people – and I’ve met people like this – who think a tiny little “Pew!” counts: “You call that a sneeze?!“)

  87. 100

    Not that it affects the key point here—that “bloody” as an expletive or epithet has religious roots—but I think it’s a reference to “God’s blood,” meaning Jesus, rather than a contraction of “By our lady.” (There’s a bit in a Dorothy Sayers book where Peter Wimsey assures an uptight relative that in referring to “the bloody footprints” he isn’t swearing, they are literally bloody.)

  88. 102

    “Sometimes there just isn’t a good, purely secular substitute for a word or phrase.”

    Which is why I still use the expression: “Goddamned Christians!”

  89. 104

    That is a great article. There are two religious terms that are sometimes used by atheists in a secular sense that I do have trouble with and wish people would find a secular alternative to. One is the word “blessed”, as in “I’ve been blessed with good health.” I have pointed out that being blessed implies someone, a deity, to do the blessing, and think words like “fortunate” or “lucky” should be used as a secular alternative. Another purely religious term used by secular people is “thankful”, and this word is one that has caused some serious disagreements with other atheists in the past. The entire act of being or feeling thankful for things that no person had control over is entirely a religious one. How can a person honestly be thankful for good health, a wonderful family, or being born into a first-world country? Who would you express that thanks to if not a god? During Thanksgiving I read a lot of atheists post things about how thankful they were, acknowledging all the while that there is no god to thank. So why bother then? If my doctor helped me beat a disease I would be thankful to him, and to the medical research that led to his abilities to implement a cure, but to be thankful to have never contracted a disease is simply ridiculous. Who are you thanking if not a god? I suggest that atheists and secularists sometimes re-evaluate their choice of language, and sometimes their intent, when they think about how lucky they are NOT to have been born into worse conditions, or not to have been born with a disease. It’s a fluke of nature that some of us are fortunate to have been born without genetic predisposition to some diseases, or born into a first-world country, or at a time when medical technology can provide simple cures for infections that would have been fatal hundreds of years ago. But, there is no entity to thank for such occurrences, and expressing thanks is purely a religious notion that should be pointed out.

  90. 107

    Old thread, sorry for waking it up, but I had that mean thought that I just had to let out: Given the negative connotations, I’m perfectly fine with “preachy” being a religious term. 😉

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