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. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 5 '15 at 17:10
  • You may be the first person to ever ask that question. – Hot Licks Dec 5 '15 at 19:09
  • @HotLicks: Is it because the answer is so obvious? – Jacinto Dec 5 '15 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 '15 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 '15 at 20:03

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.

  • 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 '20 at 20:26

"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."

  • 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 '15 at 9:46
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    I think it means "God help me be truthful." – Gerard Ashton Dec 6 '15 at 18:51
  • I think this answer is quite ingenious yet the wrong answer for the question. – Řídící Feb 23 '20 at 15:45

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 '16 at 18:47

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