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According to Collins-Robert English-French Dictionary by Beryl T. Atkins, Alain Duval, and Rosemary C. Milne, ed. 1985, manufactured in the United States of America by Rand McNally & Company,

(US) God's own country ** les États-Unis

  • DESCRIPTIVE LABELS

(**) indicates that the expression is used by some but not all educated speakers in a very relaxed situation. Such words should be handled with extreme care by the nonnative speaker unless they are very fluent in the language and are very sure of their company.

Per Oxford Dictionaries Online:

God's [own] country

An area or region supposedly favored by God, especially the United States regarded in this way.

Example sentences

It is the laxity of the authorities which has led to such a situation in the God's own country.

Visitors sometimes ask if this is supposed to be God's country or something.

Of course, the irony was all the sharper because these events had taken place not simply in God's country, but at summer camp.

My question is, what's the story behind God's [own] country? Is this expression most commonly used among people who believe in God?

In other words, would it sound strange (unusual) or out of place to hear such words coming out of the mouth of a self-declared atheist?

Also, is Collins-Robert's comment fact, that such phrase might be perceived as offensive by some, and as such should be handled with extreme care unless one is very sure of their company?

EDIT:

These are the related explanatory notes to Collins-Robert English-French Dictionary found in the beginning of the book.

(*) indicates that the expression, while not forming part of standard language, is used by all educated speakers in a relaxed situation, but would not be used in a formal essay or letter, or on an occasion when the speaker wishes to impress.

E.g. gobbledygook*; it's a piece of cake* (Brit), it's a walkover*; to make a bolt for it*; he's pretty hot* at football.

(**) indicates that the expression is used by some but not all educated speakers in a very relaxed situation. Such words should be handled with extreme care by the nonnative speaker unless they are very fluent in the language and are very sure of their company.

E.g. to be done**, be taken for a ride**, be had**; bigwig**

(***) means "Danger!" Such words are either "swear words" or highly indecent or offensive expressions which should be avoided by the nonnative speaker.

E.g. to screw***; you bloody fool!***

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I'm sure you'll get a good answer from someone who knows more about it than me. But this had to be considered in the context of a significant thread of opinion that the USA is favoured by god (American exceptionalism). Here's an old article from the LA times: articles.latimes.com/2011/oct/16/opinion/… – Chris H Mar 25 at 9:20
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My state Kerala (in south of India) is often called "God's own country", which actually is a translation of "Dhaivathinte swantham naadu". – NVZ Mar 25 at 9:28
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Elian. You well know that just about any expression might be perceived as offensive by some people. I like the caveat, and will add it to my data-bank; perhaps here, extreme care need only be taken with extremists. But how to spot them? – Edwin Ashworth Mar 25 at 11:18
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It is commonly heard in New Zealand (to describe NZ itself), often shortened to "GodZone". – user200783 Mar 25 at 11:34
    
Is that exclamation point footnote market used only with that entry, or is it used generically, used for other terms? – Mitch Mar 25 at 12:08

12 Answers 12

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Speaking as an American: People sometimes say, "You should visit such-and-such a place. It's beautiful there. It's God's country." It almost always refers to natural beauty. To the extent that a person means it literally, he means, "this is a place that particularly showcases God's creative power".

BTW I don't think I've ever heard it said as "God's own country", but always simply "God's country".

While many Americans believe that America has been particularly blessed by God, we don't say "America is God's country" or "God's own country" to express this idea. I'm rather surprised by the definition and examples you quote, because I don't think I've ever heard the phrase used that way. Of course I can't say that no one, anywhere, ever said that. But it's not common usage today. And I've read plenty of old books and I've never noticed it being common usage from the past. And as a right-wing Fundamentalist who routinely associates with others of like mind, you'd think that if anyone was using these words this way, it would be me and my friends!

I'm a little suspicious of those example sentences, especially the first one, "such a situation in the God's own country". No fluent English speaker would say "the God's". It would just be "God's". "God" with a capital "G" is a proper noun and thus does not take an article. So where did this sentence come from? Is it something an American actually said? Or something that a non-American thinks is the sort of thing an American might say? Which, of course, is highly unreliable.

One wouldn't have to be a Jew or a Christian to use this phrase. Lots of other religions believe that there is some sort of God. I'd be surprised to hear an atheist say it, as it implies a belief in God. Atheists generally avoid phrases that refer to God, except when used as a swear word. I suppose an atheist might think of it in some literary or metaphorical sense.

I don't see why this phrase would be considered offensive. Of course there are people who go out of their way to find things to be offended by, so I suppose an atheist could declare that he's offended by the mere mention of God. But if you're going to avoid saying anything that might even indirectly imply that you disagree with another person about any conceivable subject, you'll have a hard time speaking at all. Perhaps someone could be offended that you think that your home is somehow special to God in a way that his is not. But again, this is quite a stretch. If you simply said, "Oh, my homeland is a beautiful place with lovely trees and mountains", would he scream, "How dare you say that your homeland is beautiful! Are you saying that mine is not?" That would be pretty irrational. Not to say that people aren't irrational.

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Just for clarification, books.google.fr/…; google.fr/… – Elian Mar 25 at 15:02
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Actually I have heard the expression "God's own country" only in reference to the US by US-Americans. So it's strange to read that you haven't heard that term inside "God's own country" ;) ... also: beleif -> belief (can't edit with changing only two characters, six is minimum) – 0xC0000022L Mar 25 at 18:49
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@0xC0000022L All I can say is to I repeat that I've never heard that phrasing in such a context. I certainly don't deny that SOMEONE might have said it: obviously I don't know everything ever said by every English-speaking person in history. It's possible that I've heard it a couple of times and forgotten. But it's not something commonly said by people I know, found in the books or web sites I read, etc. It may be common to some sub-group of English speakers that I am not a part of. I'd be interested if other Americans would weigh in on this. Have you heard this, and if so, where? – Jay Mar 25 at 20:38
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I have heard the phrase often enough as "God's own country", with the "own" included, but I agree with you completely that "country" is never being used in the sense of "nation"; instead it corresponds to the definition "a particular geographical area of indefinite boundary". It's also definitely not specifically American. – hobbs Mar 28 at 4:10
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@NVZ although anyone can edit on StackExchange, third-party edits are generally expected to correct mistakes, improve formatting, or add information, without changing the original author's meaning. Choosing what phrases to emphasize counts as changing the meaning in this context. – hobbs Mar 28 at 4:16

According to the Wiki entry The expression was first used to describe the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland by Edward du Bois, writing under the pseudonym "A Knight Errant" in 1807.

As the article explains: God's Country and God's Own Country are terms that have been used to describe various countries and regions around the world, usually areas that are sparsely populated, with wide expanses of nature

If you read the article you may find it helpful.

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Thanks for the info, Wiki doesn't say, though, if the expression might be perceived as offensive by some people. – Elian Mar 25 at 9:26
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@NVZ I believe it can be used sarcastically. – WS2 Mar 25 at 9:36
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@NVZ Well, I just thought it might sound arrogant to some hearing someone call their country "God's own country." – Elian Mar 25 at 9:37
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@Elian Maybe you're right. But in my experience, God's own country means "a land with lush greenery, peace among cultures and religions, etc", at least that's what my land Kerala is. :) – NVZ Mar 25 at 9:41
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I have always heard "God's (own) country" in the sense of "nature as created by God", the antithesis of the concrete jungle of a large city. In this case, "country" does not mean "nation"; it in the same sense as "country" vs. "city". (Cf. John Denver's "Country Road", which opens with the line "Almost Heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River". Not a man-made edifice in the list.) – Monty Harder Mar 25 at 13:40

My (Welsh) father always (!) used to murmur contentedly to himself "God's own country" when we would finally leave England and the 'urban' East side of Wales behind and arrive into more rural west Wales. I don't remember if he ever attributed the phrase to anyone (although Dylan Thomas was a favourite writer ...). I think the idea was that here (southern West Wales) was a place like no other; where all things combined (for him) in a uniquely satisfactory way.

The way he used the phrase did not at all preclude that there might be other countries favoured by God. Simply that, for him, this place was the most special. I should add that my father was not a religious man. At all!

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+1 Thanks for sharing. Does the expression have any offensive nature? – NVZ Mar 25 at 11:08
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Yes. I've heard it in connection with Wales, more than anywhere else I think. – WS2 Mar 25 at 13:03
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@WS2 stirring stuff that video, didn't understand a word but it was still beautifully moving. – Mari-Lou A Mar 25 at 21:06
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@Dan, after driving last week from South West Wales, through a stunning variety of scenery, to grungy Merseyside, I have to agree with your father. However, in view of the number of roadworks on that drive, perhaps the motto should not be 'Cymru Am Byth' [Wales Forever] but 'Pan welwch yr golau coch sefwch yma' [When you see the red light, wait here']! – David Garner Mar 27 at 11:13
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Sorry, I think it's "y golau" not "yr golau". – David Garner Mar 27 at 12:36

I think the original poster is confused by the word "country". In the English language "country" has two meanings:

  1. Nation ("the entire country paid homage to its hero")
  2. Wilderness or the outdoors. ("I'm a country boy, not a city-slicker")

Most of the times I've heard the expression "God's country" or "God's own country" it's been in reference to #2, above, typically referring to a place of great natural unspoiled beauty.

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As other answers indicate, the phrase God's [own] country is used in many places around the world, always with the sense that the place referred to is somehow special, holy, or blessed --but not necessarily in a manner indicating actual religious belief. I would imagine that the potential controversy of the phrase comes in the underlying assumption that one particular place is "God's own" (and thus that the others are not).

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Why is everybody forgetting Yorkshire:

In the United Kingdom the phrase is commonly used by people to describe Yorkshire, England's largest county. This is used interchangeably with God's Own County.

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I believe in the case of Kerala, the meaning is quite literal. According to mythology, Kerala was formed or rather 'taken from the sea' by Parasuram, the avatar of the god Vishnu and hence referred to as God's own country. At least this is what I'm given to understand.

See the section on mythology in Wikipedia, Kerala

P.S. I tried to add this as a comment rather than an answer, but I don't have the creds yet.

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I added a reference and a link. Maybe you can find a better reference, one that explicitly refers to Kerala as God's country. – ab2 Mar 25 at 22:05
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Can confirm. Kollam and Thiruvananthpuram are some of the top beaches in the country. – Prahlad Yeri Mar 25 at 22:06
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Hopefully this time, an answer suggesting Kerala won't risk being deleted by a third mod now it has a reference! – Mari-Lou A Mar 26 at 0:54

The meaning - "God's own country" is a set phrase without a precise definition, but is used often in relation to visible landscapes that are sparsely populated, and under peaceful control.

  • The connotation - it mentions 'God', and spoken by an Anglo most likely refers to the more common Anglo deity in a vague manner. It is not a reference to specific scripture of any kind, and is not a phrase commonly associated with any particular sect or likely to be used with respect to by sect-specific clergy or other leaders in the context of the church. That is, the reference to God is somewhat metaphorical. Also, the phrase is not vulgar or informal or uneducated in any way, it is simply a cliché.

  • The social setting - because it mentions God explicitly, it may very well be avoided by non-believers but that is a non-evidenced based and difficult to get evidence. I'd expect that many non-believers don't say 'Bless you' but also many may. There's no RCT (randomized controlled trial) that has collected the relevant social and linguistic data. That is to say, the phrase "God's own country" could easily be used by a non-believer

  • The dictionary's footnote - The footnote is entirely too specific and extreme itself, especially if it is to be used for other words or phrases. If there were a taxonomy of vulgarity or taboo or other tendention, it would describe one very small corner. Also, in being so specific it's also easy to see that it is incorrect. I do not perceive it as offensive (I'm surprised at the use of such a strong descriptor).

  • 'very sure of their company' - It may be annoying to a non-believer and philosophically contrary to them, but offensive is not appropriate for this word.

  • 'handled with extreme caution by the non-native speaker' - extreme caution would be appropriate for taboo words like 'shit' or 'bitch' or for colloquialisms like "ain't" or g-dropping (because of social disdain or inability to articulate correctly).

  • 'self proclaimed atheist' - sayings with religious connection are often spoken by devout non-believers often: 'bless you', 'goddamit', 'thoughts and prayers', 'speak of the devil'. Atheists may attempt to deliberately attempt to not utter such things, but many still say them because they are not literal magical invocations.

All that being said, it is a cliché with obvious religious overtones and a non-native speaker would likely not share a cultural space with the hearer and that might make it sound strange if the NNS spoke it in the presence of a NS.

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Devout non-believer? Sounds a bit like aggressive sleeper ... – 0xC0000022L Mar 25 at 18:54
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@0xC0000022L haha. you have no idea. – Mitch Mar 25 at 19:18

In the US, "God's country" ("own" is rarely used) is usually used in reference to wilderness, where relatively few humans reside. (Though there are a few non-wilderness localities where the term is self-applied for promotional purposes.)

I'm guessing the etymology is rather diffuse. There is a sense of "God-blessed", but also a sense of "God-forsaken". And a kind of neutral sense that the only one there is God -- no humans.

Ngram shows that "God's own country" is quite rare in American English but much more common in British English. (Something is mucking up the links, so you have to push Search lots of books after following the link.)

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It's also quite common in Newfoundland, Australia and New Zealand, whose combined total population won't make much of a blip in the world's literary corpus. – bye Mar 26 at 11:39

I agree with the other answers that this phrase usually refers to an area in general as having in some way appealing geography, and I wouldn't associate it with the United States, speaking as someone who lives there. I'm sure some people use it that way, but in the context of a conversation, you could say that about any country you like and it would not be confusing.

As for offensiveness: Part of both Christianity and Judaism (and presumably other religions that I won't speak for) is reverence for God and respect for his name. As a Christian, I wouldn't personally use the phrase "God's own country" for two reasons:

  1. In reference to some place on earth, it can only be sarcastic, since God created the entire earth and no country is privileged to be "his own";
  2. Referring to God in this flippant way is profanity because it connects God to the earth, suggesting that he is "from" somewhere.

This may help you understand how it could be offensive to some people. However, these reasons are why I don't say it myself; I don't hold these reservations about other people. I am not personally offended by phrases like "God's own country", or more common ones like "Oh my god", etc. God, in my opinion, is capable of being offended for himself and he doesn't need my help.

(Not English-language related: Frankly, I expect to hear this kind of thing more from atheist and non-religious people, because the reasons above don't apply to them. Some people will be offended, but there are people who will be offended at nearly anything you say; that doesn't mean you should never say anything. Unless you're writing The Very Hungry Caterpillar, chances are that the occasional profanity is less offensive than the content itself.)

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From a Jewish/Christian point of view, the Israelis are "God's people" so I presume Israel is literally "God's own country". :-) – Jay Mar 25 at 14:44
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@Jay That's a topic for another SE, but no, I really don't think that follows. But I suppose it depends on how you interpret the genitive "God's". :shrug: – trentcl Mar 25 at 18:30
    
On the slightly relevant side: Okay, if you interpret "God's country" to mean "the country where God was born", that's an absurd and meaningless idea to a Jew or Christian, as God wasn't born anywhere. But if you understand it to mean, "a country which God has chosen as his own special place", Israel fits that description in Judeo-Christian teaching. Like the difference between "my house" meaning "the place where I live", and "my house" meaning "this place that I designed and built with my own hands and of which I am very proud". (Well, God was born in Israel in the person of Jesus, but, etc.) – Jay Mar 25 at 20:48
    
@trentcl "Referring to God in this flippant way" I've been taught that communist Russia made anti-God statements, causing WASP (White... Protestant) America to represent a Godly nation (at least relative to the USSR). To me, it seems sensible, not flippant, that a nation with "In God We Trust" on currency, and had "one nation under God" may have sensibly viewed itself as being God's nation. This isn't necessarily indicating divine favor (especially over any other nations), but rather the nation's willingness to give submission to God. – TOOGAM Mar 26 at 6:33
    
@TOOGAM I'm not talking about the USA. – trentcl Mar 26 at 13:18

I see a difference between "God's Own Country", a standard phrase denoting satisfied patriotism, maybe even with a touch of humour and "God's Country" which, lacking the element of cliche, may be taken more as fighting talk. Doubtless useage and inplication differs from country to country though.

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In the US, "God's country" is rarely used in a jingoistic or even patriotic sense. – Hot Licks Mar 27 at 13:18
    
The most correct answer here. – Joe Blow Mar 28 at 8:01

A Google Books search turns up 21 book, poem, and pamphlet titles that include "God's Own Country" in their title: In Sunflower Land: Stories of God's Own Country (1892) by Roswell Field, stories from Kansas; "God's Own Country" (1893), a poem about New Zealand by Thomas Bracken; "God's Own Country,": An Appreciation of Australia (1914), by C.E. Jacomb; These from God's Own Country (1947), by Samuel Bensusan, a British writer; God's Own Country—and Mine: America and Denmark (1951), by Richard Oestermann & Donald Nuechterlein, in which a Danish journalist and an American student "give their impressions of each other's country"; God's Own Country (1953), a novel by S.F. Bannister about "the life of an Australian 'rolling stone'"; God's Own Country (1977), by J.F. Buckland, a New Zealander; God's Own Country (1993), by Benedict Kiely, fiction set in Ireland. Nigeria, God's Own Country (2000), by John Sigo; In God's Own Country: A Novel (2000), by Ponmala, a novel that "explores the present communal situation and atrocities against one of the minority community in India"; Kerala, God's Own Country (2003), by Shashi Tharoor & ‎Maqbul Fida Husain, "an act of celebration" of Kerala, India; "God's Own Country, Devil's People?: All Good Deeds of George W. Bush" (2003), a pamphlet by Andreas Schindler, published in Germany; God's Own Country (2004), by Helga Kaye, "an historical novel, set in South Africa during the late 19th century"; Building God's Own Country: Historical Essays on Religions in New Zealand (2004), By John Stenhouse & Jane Thomson; Tourism of a Different Kind in "God's Own Country": A Critical Hermeneutic Exploration of Socioeconomic Development in Kerala, India (2006), by Ayliffe Mumford; God's Own Country: Tales from the Bible Belt (2007), by Stephen Bates, an inquiry into "why what happens in the [U.S.] Bible Belt matters to us [in Britain]"; God's Own Country (2009) by Ross Raisin, a novel set in Yorkshire; God's Own Country (2010), a memoir by Ross Bushby, an Australian; Travels in God's Own Country: A Personal Journey Through Kerala (2011), by Elizabeth Thomas; God's Own Country (2013), by Bart Wolffe, a novel seemingly set in Zimbabwe; and God's Own Country: Religion in America, volume 1 (undated), by Donald Turner.

These 21 allusions to "God's Own Country" break down as follows: five refer to the United States, four to India, three to Australia, three to New Zealand, two to Britain, and one each to Ireland, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. On the surface, the United States accounts for almost a quarter of the matches—a substantial proportion, though hardly enough to make associating the phrase "God's own country" primarily with the United States seem entirely reasonable.

But looking more closely at the five U.S.-related instances, we find two evidently home-grown instances (one from 1892 and the other undated), one a mix of U.S. and Danish sources (seemingly referring to both the United States and Denmark as being equally "god's own country—and mine"), and two from European sources (Britain and Germany) that appear to be using the term ironically. When we exclude the instances for which U.S. writers are not obviously responsible, U.S. writers account for almost a tenth of the instances, rather than almost a quarter of them.

The Oxford Dictionaries Online's assertion (cited by the OP) that "God's own country" refers to

An area or region supposedly favored by God, especially the United States regarded in this way.

may thus be relying on attributions of the term "God's own country" to the United States by non-Americans as much as it relies on instances where Americans have gone on record laying claim to that special status for their own country. If so, that might explain why many lifelong residents of the United States have rarely or never heard the United States referred to by fellow Americans as "God's own country," and yet some dictionaries assembled abroad specifically associate the term with the United States.

In general, as other answerers have pointed out, the phrase "God's own country" in English-speaking countries is more likely to refer to land that is especially physically beautiful, and in some instances bountiful, than to a nation that enjoys God's special favor and (perhaps) imagines itself to have some messianic role to play in the history of humanity. No country has—or as far as I know, claims to have—a monopoly on beautiful, bountiful land.

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