Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In Singapore you don't have to swear an oath in court if you are of certain religions. Instead you affirm that you're speaking the truth:

Circumstances under which affirmation may be made 16.   Any person who —(a) is a Hindu or Muslim or of some other religion according to which oaths are not of binding force; or(b) has a conscientious objection to taking an oath,and who is required to take an oath of office or judicial oath under any written law may, instead of taking the oaths referred to in section 15 (1) or (2), as the case may be, make an affirmation in the form of those oaths, substituting the words “solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm” for the word “swear” and omitting the words “So help me God”.

I'm curious if that means oaths in British English have an implied religious meaning? It seems to be the case that you swear to God usually, but an oath in itself is irreligious, no?

share|improve this question
    
A religious "oath" is a creed, I would say. –  Neil Apr 22 '11 at 20:42
2  
Somewhat related: oath vs. pledge vs. vow –  F'x Apr 22 '11 at 21:06
3  
Oaths aren't about swearing to God but swearing before God. The subtext is "I will tell you the truth at risk to myself if I don't that God will punish me". –  Peter Taylor Apr 23 '11 at 12:46
    
If the text includes "so help me God", how could that be irreligious? The speaker may not believe, but that doesn't change the words. –  Monica Cellio Nov 28 '11 at 13:54

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I would say yes. There is, at very least, a tacit religious appeal. The idea of a secular promise is a very recent idea in human history. Almost all promises of a certain importance were attached to an appeal the deity. Taking an oath or swearing to something or other does have a religious connotation. Now, some may choose not to see it that way, and legally it might not be any different that a simple affirmation of truth, but the religious connection is still there.

share|improve this answer
1  
I think it's interesting that oaths, at least in the US and UK, have a traditionally Christian connotation, and at the same time there are groups, like the Quakers and Mennonites, who refuse to take oaths for scriptural reasons. –  Sam Apr 22 '11 at 21:55
5  
Yes, and I'd go even further than tacit. It's quite clear in the UK court system that an oath is religious and an affirmation is the non-religious alternative. hmcourts-service.gov.uk/infoabout/jury_service/oath_taking.htm –  z7sg Ѫ Apr 22 '11 at 22:27
    
According to the Finnish government they have since 1734 one oath which invokes God, and one pledge which does not (The Swedish oath does not, though I'm not sure since when). vn.fi/tietoa-valtioneuvostosta/perustietoa/vala-vakuutus/sv.jsp I'm not sure if 1734 still counts as very recent, but I think you might be right that it's fairly universal. –  Kit Sunde Apr 22 '11 at 23:07

No, it means you "swear" to do something. You can include religion to the oath, but you do not have to.

Dictionary.reference.com

share|improve this answer
5  
In UK the Clerk of the Court will ask your religious position before you're sworn in. They keep copies of all major books (Bible, Koran, etc.) that you might swear on, but you don't have to use any. I don't know if the Clerk would allow you to, for example, swear on your mother's life, but you can certainly just swear to tell the truth without reference to any talisman. –  FumbleFingers Apr 22 '11 at 20:32
2  
But "swear" also has religious connotations, at least traditionally speaking. Invoking the sacred name of the deity and all that. –  Sam Apr 22 '11 at 21:40
    
@Sam That's to do with blasphemy, as it still is in other religions, it used to be a bad thing to say some Christian central figures names. –  tobylane Apr 22 '11 at 22:14
    
@tobylane, taking God's name in vain is different from swearing before, or invoking, God. Both of these are problems in some religions. –  Monica Cellio Nov 28 '11 at 13:56

The US Constitution makes the distinction between oath and affirmation, the former being religious in nature, to emphasize that either an oath or an affirmation is necessary to hold office.

The Devil's Dictionary yields the following definition:

OATH, n. In law, a solemn appeal to the Deity, made binding upon the conscience by a penalty for perjury.

share|improve this answer
    
Both interesting, but neither useful sources for correct English. –  TimLymington Nov 28 '11 at 23:39
    
The former, at least, is legally binding in the US and its possessions. Do you have some other source wielding greater authority? –  Malvolio Nov 29 '11 at 2:19
    
Um, a (non-satirical) dictionary? My point was that a legal document over 200 years old may not be the best foundation for modern English, however revered it is. –  TimLymington Nov 29 '11 at 22:24
    
It's not a legal document; for a huge chunk of all English-speakers, it is the legal document and it has the force of law (or rather, all laws derive their force from it). I don't think any dictionary, satirical or otherwise, has authority to match that. –  Malvolio Nov 29 '11 at 23:48

Yes, there is an implication that an oath is religious, especially if it starts "I swear by Almighty God that...", but take for example section 4(2) of the UK Oaths Act 1978 (consolidating earlier Acts)

Where an oath has been duly administered and taken, the fact that the person to whom it was administered had, at the time of taking it, no religious belief, shall not for any purpose affect the validity of the oath.

Like most other countries, there is also provision for affirmation, in section 5(1)

Any person who objects to being sworn shall be permitted to make his solemn affirmation instead of taking an oath.

share|improve this answer

By no means does an oath have to be religious. What jumped to mind immediately was something that pops up in crosswords often, "a mild oath," e.g. darn!, drat!, egad!, and so forth. They are non-offensive words you may utter to express curses or profane expressions.

share|improve this answer
2  
Actually, those examples of mild oaths that you provided are euphemisms for less mild and religious oaths: darn from damn, egad for 'ye gods'. –  thursdaysgeek Apr 22 '11 at 20:56
    
@thursdaysgeek good point, I stand corrected. –  gbutters Apr 22 '11 at 21:34
1  
Arguable. Oaths like 'swounds (ex "God's wounds") that are so far removed from a religious context and synonymous with ruder exclamations can hardly be said to be expressions of religious fervor - albeit being religious in origin. –  The Raven Apr 22 '11 at 22:11
    
Yes, I agree the distance makes a difference. When I was a kid, we weren't allowed to say "Gee" because it was a euphemism for "Jesus". I think even that is getting enough removed, that almost no-one considers it to have any religious significance. So, while the origin is religious, the words themselves no longer carry much, if any, religious significance. –  thursdaysgeek Apr 22 '11 at 22:20
    
@The Raven nice point. I think that is where my original confusion came from, as the examples (with the exception of darn) I gave are so far removed from a religious context. @thursdaysgeek When I thought to reply to construct a counterargument I went to a list of mild oaths and all of them are related to religion in some way. Jiminy Cricket, begorrah, and on and on. The only non-religious oath I could find was "nerts," which apparently is an alternative for "nuts!" –  gbutters Apr 23 '11 at 11:41

There seems to be some confusion between meanings of the word oath. It has a judicial context, in which you promise something 'as God is my witness'. The non-religious equivalent of this is affirmation, and the difference is that you promise without putting your hand on a book (note that you still have to use a prescribed form of words, to bring you 'on oath' in the sense of liable to perjury charges if you lie). I don't believe either can be called irreligious (it's a nice point of theology whether swearing an oath is unChristian).

There is also common swearing ('taking the name of the Lord in vain'), which clearly originates in overuse of the first, as in "If ever I utter an oath again may my soul be blasted to eternal damnation!" (St Joan). This is abbreviated to "My God!" or any of the innumerable variations. Since no gentleman would ever use such an oath, and no lady could even hear one without swooning, people use 'darn' for 'damn', 'Jeepers Creepers', for 'Jesus Christ', and so on. The technical term for these is minced oaths. (Pretty much the only other method of swearing is sexual references like "Oh Fuck"; I'm not sure whether this would technically be an oath or not.)

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.