OMG – it’s not new at all. OMG!

Last Saturday I posted an entry on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. With a puzzler of my own at the end. Who first used the abbreviation “OMG”?

The answer is this man: Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher (1840-1920), the volcanic, megalomaniac, temperamental naval officer who – as First Sea Lord – reformed the Royal Navy between 1904 and 1910. They didn’t call it ‘the fleet that Jack built’ for nothing.

Fisher’s role as inventor of the term was recently revealed in the third edition Oxford English Dictionary. Not too astonishing for anyone familiar with Fisher. And in any case, the OED is not to be dissed; it is the English gold standard for, with long-standing and thoroughly deserved repute for the calibre and quality of its scholarship. J. R. R. Tolkien was one of their writers, back in 1919-20.

So while in the linguistic sense I suspect it’s likely that “OMG” has been invented and re-invented many times in recent colloquial usage, there can be little doubt about Fisher’s role as original creator. The OED traced it to a letter he wrote to Winston Churchill in 1917, which he finished with a typical Fisherian explosion: “O.M.G. (‘Oh! My God!) – Shower it on the Admiralty!!”

As it happens – partly thanks to interest fired up by an honours dissertation I wrote on this man (in another century, sigh) – I own the book where that letter was first published in 1919, Fisher’s autobiography Memories. The text is also available online.

First use of OMG! Part of p78 from Fisher’s ‘Memories’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).

Fisher’s writing was littered with abbreviations, multiple underlinings, Biblical references, multiple exclamation marks and red ink. He was a career navy man, deeply religious, ambitious, unforgiving, ruthless, prone to pursue vendettas beyond any point of reason. He was addicted to waltzing. He even believed he was a second Nelson, to the point of pursuing an affair with his own ‘Lady Hamilton’. But he was also a megalomaniac, and in April 1915, finally managed to bring the British government down over the Gallipoli crisis.

That also destroyed his own career, but that did not stop him being appointed, in 1916-17, to lead the committee that invented sonar, then known by its British acronym ASDIC.

His main legacy, however, remains his 1904-05 naval reform programme which set the Royal Navy up for the twentieth century – and allowed it to help Britain win the First World War. This included introducing the all-big-gun battleship and battlecruiser in 1905, committee projects Fisher led which extended existing naval trends. Much of the repute of the type flowed from the way Fisher sold the new vessels to the media – particularly HMS Dreadnought which, he insisted, had been built in just 366 days. This was typical Fisherian theatrics. Her actual construction time was fifteen months, still an astonishing achievement.

So – whenever you use ‘OMG’ or its modern form ‘ZOMG’, don’t forget Jack Fisher – the man who gave it to us.

And the link to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code? In 2006, Holy Blood – Holy Grail authors Richard Leigh, Michael Baigent and Henry Lincoln (whose names became that of Brown’s villain “Leigh Teabing”) sued Random House and Brown for copyright infringement. Not from copied words, but because the ‘central theme’ had been allegedly lifted from them. They lost. Justice Peter Smith ruled that there had been no breach – for reasons summarised here. Amidst the judgement document he embedded a code of his own, apparently for amusement. It did not take long for a Guardian journalist to decode. Here’s an enthusiast analysis of the mechanism. And it read: ‘Smithy Code. Jackie Fisher, who are you? Dreadnought.” A very explicit reference to the Admiral, of whom Smith was apparently a fan.

As, indeed, am I. ZOMG!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011

4 thoughts on “OMG – it’s not new at all. OMG!

  1. Hi Matthew,
    This is very cool. I had no idea OMG dated back that far. I thought it was a popular saying that hadn’t been around that long. Thanks for an interesting history lesson.


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