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The phrase is of course very well known:

Do you promise to say the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God?

I used to interpret “so help me God” as:

(a) God help me say the truth, i.e. God give me the moral strength to be truthful.

Recently I found that in the northeast of Portugal (in a mountainous area where men used to wear skirts and play bagpipes) people used to utter a similar phrase, “assim Deus me salve,” literally “so save me God,” as a guarantee that they were saying the truth or would keep a promise. Now God can help one be truthful but cannot save one be truthful. This plus context make it clear the Portuguese phrase means:

(b) May God save me if I’m saying the truth/I keep my promise (and not if I don’t).

The phrases are so similar that now I wonder whether the English one does not mean (a) at all but rather something like (b):

(c) May God help me if I’m fully truthful (and not if I’m not).

Online resources make me favour (c) only marginally. They say what the phrase is used for, but do not discuss the actual meaning:

Merriam-Webster: used to stress that a statement is serious and truthful.

Oxford Learners: Used to emphasize that one means what one is saying.

Longaman: used when making a serious promise, especially in a court of law.

So my questions are: (1) what is the correct interpretation of “so help me God?” and (2) would interpretation (a), even if it is not how people understand the phrase, be possible at all, i.e. would it be correct to say “(…) nothing but the truth, so help me God” to mean “(…) nothing but the truth, God help me keep my promise?”

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    I hope that God will help/save me in the same degree that I tell the truth. Dec 5, 2015 at 17:10
  • You may be the first person to ever ask that question.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 5, 2015 at 19:09
  • @HotLicks: Is it because the answer is so obvious?
    – Jacinto
    Dec 5, 2015 at 19:13
  • So help me, God! makes (a) seem like the right answer, but without the comma, I like Webster's. And hot tends to be a tough critic with a rather warped sense of humor
    – Stu W
    Dec 5, 2015 at 19:34
  • @Jacinto - No, because the phrase is uttered without ever thinking of what it means. (It's a good question.)
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 5, 2015 at 20:03

4 Answers 4

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From Religion-Plus-Speech: The Constitutionality of Juror Oaths and Affirmations Under the First Amendment by Jonathan Belcher:

The phrase "so help me God," a popular component of grand and petit juror oath statutes, is actually an abbreviated form of the oath, "So may God help me at the judgment day if I speak true, but if I speak false, then may He withdraw His help from me." White, supra note 30, at 379-80 n.10.

This is similar to the Wiktionary entry:

The phrase implies that the speaker is willing to risk their chance of salvation upon their truthfulness.

So, it is (b)/(c), but with god's help being specifically towards what happens after the death of the speaker (eg, helping the speaker stay out of hell).

Some quote from a random religious website, to get an idea of the religious meaning of salvation (cf. your Portuguese word salve):

Salvation, or "being saved" means redemption from the power of sin. In practical terms, God's salvation is what we need to get to heaven or attain eternal life.

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  • Thanks for this. Yes, the Portuguese verb salvar, just like English to save, means both ’to get to heaven’ and ’to save from eathly dangers’.
    – Jacinto
    Feb 23, 2020 at 20:26
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Christine Ammer, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) has this brief but interesting entry for the expression:

so help me Also, so help me God. I swear that what I am saying is true, as in So help me, I haven't enough cash to pay for the tickets, or I wasn't there, so help me God. This idiom became a formal oath and is still used in courts of law for swearing in a witness (I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God). It was first recorded in 1508 as "So help me, our Lord."

Ammer's note about the earliest recorded occurrence seems to be incorrect, however, as an Early English Books Online search turns up two matches for "so help me god" from the 1480s. From William Caxtoon's printing of This Is the Table of the Historye of Reynart the Foxe (1481):

how bruyn ete the hony capitulo. .viij:

Bruyn eme I had supposed that ye had iaped therwyth / so help me god reynart nay / I shold not gladly iape with yow / thenne spacke the rede reynart is it thenne ernest that ye loue so wel the hony / I shal do late you haue so moche that ten of yow shold not ete it at one mele / myght I gete therwith your friendship /

And from Caxton's printing of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (1483):

Lo he that is / as holy youres free

Hym recomaundyth / lowly to yowre grace

And sent yow thys letter / here by me

Auyse you on it / whan ye haue space

And of som̄e goodely answere / yow purchace

Or so help me god / pleynly for to seyne

He may not long lyue / in thys peyne

This same passage is rendered in The Riverside Chaucer, third edition (1987) as follows:

"Lo, he that is al holy youres free / Hym recomaundeth lowely to youre grace, / And sent yow this lettre here by me. / Avyseth yow on it, whan ye han space, / And of som goodly answere you purchace, / Or, helpe me God, so pleynly for to seyne, / He may nat longe lyven for his peyne."

Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde in the early 1380s, which suggests that "help me God" as a way of asserting the truth of what one says may go back at least to the late fourteenth century; the exact form "so help me God" in the poem, however, may have originated in Caxton's 1483 printed version.

The Statutes Prohemium Iohannis Rastell (1527) identify two oaths that incorporate "so help me God" as an attestation of truth—the more easily understood of the two being the form for oaths of fealty for free men and for villains to recite:

Fealte

When a free man shall do fealte he shall hold his right hād vppon the boke and shall sey here you my lord that. I. A. B shall be to you feythfull and law full and shall bere you feyth of the tenementts that. I. clayme to hold af you and that. I. shall lawfully do you the seruice and costomes that. I. owght to do at termes assygnes as so help me god and all seintis / and a villayn shall hold his handis. vt supra. and shall sey / here you. & cetera. that. I. shalbe to you feythfull and shall bere you feyth of tenementis that. I. hold of you in villenage and. I. shalbe iustifiable to you of body and goodis as so helpe me. & cetera.

As for the 1508 instance of "so help me our Lord" mentioned by Ammer, that may be a reference to William Dunbar, The Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo. And Other Poems (1507[?]), which includes these lines:

I sall ye venome devoid with a vent large / And me assuage of ye swalme that suellit wes gret / My husband wes a hur mast{er} ye hugeast in erd / Tharfor i hait hī with my hert sa help me our lord / He is a ʒoung mā rytgh ʒaip bot noutgh in ʒouth flouris / For he is fadit full far et feblit of strenth / He wes as flurising fresche with in yis few ʒeris. / Bot he is falʒeid full far et fulʒeid in labour.

But this instance reached print (probably in Scotland) a quarter century after the first Caxton publication containing the phrase "so help me god" appeared.

As other answerers and commenters have noted, the literal sense of "so help me God" is roughly "with God's help," but I think that the substantive sense of it, from an early period, was (and is) "as God is my witness"—that is, "as I swear before God [to speak truly]."

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    The question was whether (a) or (b)/(c) is the correct way to understand this phrase. Could it be made more explicit which one it is, and how these early examples of its use support one interpretation and rule out the other?
    – jsw29
    Dec 11, 2021 at 16:36
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"So" is sometimes used as a reference to a matter that was just mentioned. Star Trek The Next Generation fans will recall many instances of Captain Picard ordering "make it so", meaning "do what has just been discussed". In a formal meeting that is following parliamentary procedure, the chairman might say "we can't proceed unless someone moves to accept the treasurer's report" and one of the board members might say "so moved" because it's shorter than saying "I move the treasurer's report be accepted". So, by analogy, "so help me God" means "God help me do what I was just talking about, that is, tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

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  • I understand your answer means yes to my question (2). Do you also mean that "God help me truthful" is the right interpretation, not, as others suggested, "God help me in the same degree as I tell the truth"?
    – Jacinto
    Dec 6, 2015 at 9:46
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    I think it means "God help me be truthful." Dec 6, 2015 at 18:51
  • I think this answer is quite ingenious yet the wrong answer for the question.
    – Řídící
    Feb 23, 2020 at 15:45
-2

Your (c) is essentially right. "So help me God" means "may God help me as much as what I just said is true."

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    I feel inclined to agree with you now. But I’d like to see some evidence beyond your testimony, especially as the other answer goes the other way.
    – Jacinto
    Jan 8, 2016 at 18:47

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