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When something bad happens, sometimes you'll hear Oh, dear! or Oh, dear me!

Why is this? Is it a shorter version of another phrase that makes sense in these situations?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Two possibilities I can think of. Firstly, it could be a contraction of:

Oh, Dear god!

to avoid blasphemy. This makes sense as it is an admonishment.

Or the other possibility is that 'Dear' was another name for god, like 'the Almighty' or 'the Lord', possibly as a result of the contraction mentioned above.

It crops up rather a lot in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels (brilliant on many levels, not least their meticulously researched use of early 19th century language), in phrases like:

"The Dear only knows that you've been working awfully hard."

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What's especially amusing is that the word "god" itself is likely derived from a verb meaning "to invoke", and would have been used to avoid blasphemy or what have you by avoiding actual invocation. Whether that means the tetragrammaton is a matter of history. –  Jon Purdy Jan 27 '11 at 16:01
    
Your first suggestion makes a lot of sense to me (more than the others). Dear might easily be used as an adjective to describe God, and the God was then not said to avoid blasphemy. –  Noldorin Jan 27 '11 at 16:01
    
I agree to the "God" reference. I've always assumed it was a variation from the Italian phrase "O Dio" meaning "Oh God". –  user14730 Nov 11 '11 at 13:09
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Apparently the interjection dates from the 1690s.

Edit: Upon further review, it appears to be a contraction of "Dear Lord!" — an expression of surprise or amazement in the form of a supplication.

Also removed the misleading attribution about unknown origin.

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it's actually the origin of dear that is ultimately unknown according to the site. Not the interjection "oh dear" –  b.roth Jan 27 '11 at 10:45
    
@Bruno: Thanks for pointing that out. Edited in answer. –  Robusto Jan 27 '11 at 15:51
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I know that here in Wales, we say "Duw Duw" (pronounced similar to Dee-oo Dee-oo) to mean 'Goodness me!". This literally translates as "God God" ( similar to Italian Dio, or Irish Dia) which would fit with the hypothesis that 'Dear' was a term originally referring to the Latin form for God, i.e Deus.

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Most of these exclamations are either direct appellations to a deity or a spirit, or euphemisms for such. The question is whether that particular phrase falls in line with the rest, or has any specific source. Although hypothesis of phonetic imitation does sound interesting. Now, if only there were sources to corroborate it. –  theUg Jan 23 '13 at 4:57
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Interestingly, we just moved to Spain, where people frequently say "Dio Mio!" meaning "My God." It very often sounds like "Dear me!" because they drop the final "o" sound. I wonder if it's a corruption of that?

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The Oxford English Dictionary writes

A derivation from Italian dio, God, as conjectured by some, resting upon modern English pronunciation of dea(r, finds no support in the history of the word.

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This is a comment on other answers; it is not an answer to the question. –  Drew Jun 4 at 14:17
    
This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post. –  Ronan Jun 4 at 14:37
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protected by tchrist Jun 4 at 15:59

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