If you’ve ever heard someone exclaim, “Oh, the humanity!” you may have wondered what they meant. This article will explore the history of this now-popular saying, as well as look at how its meaning has evolved from the late 19th century and early 20th century to today.
What Does Oh the Humanity Mean?
Put simply, the saying oh, the humanity means “how horrible” or “how terrible.” It’s sometimes said to be a synonym for the exclamation oh my God. Indeed, as you’ll read in just a moment, the two most well-known historical uses of the expression were in regards to truly awful and horrific events. Yet, today when you hear or see the phrase, it is most often used sarcastically. It’s written or spoken when someone is, as they say, making a mountain out of a molehill, or making a fuss out of a minor problem or situation. In other words, perhaps they perceive the situation to be terrible or difficult, but in reality, it’s not a big deal—even far from it. Or, it’s used in general to describe an “awful” situation that isn’t actually all that bad or bad, well, at all.
Here are some example sentences using the phrase oh, the humanity sarcastically, as it is most often used this day and age:
- Sally was going on and on about how unfair it was that she only got to take three vacations this year instead of four. I just rolled my eyes and said to her, “Oh, the humanity!”
- Oh, the humanity! The weather today is wreaking havoc on my hair; I look like a mess!
- When I took my daughter’s phone away for the night she threw a major tantrum. She begged and pleaded to have it back swearing that her life was over. I just chuckled and exclaimed, “Oh, the humanity!” reminding her that when I was her age cell phones weren’t even invented!
Of course, you can use the saying to express shock over something truly terrible. This is how the phrase was originally used when it entered the modern lexicon and rose to popularity. Keep reading.
The History of the Expression
As has already been mentioned, the phrase is typically used much differently today than it was years ago.
We know that people used this saying as far back as the 1860s, to express shock and sadness over a horrible event or situation. In a letter dated October 7, 1862, Samuel D. Lougheed wrote to his wife Jane “Jennie” Lougheed about the horrors of the Civil War battlefield:
“Tis hard to see the mighty prancing war horse, trampling the dying and dead
beneath their merciless feet. No dear wife, near to speak a word of comfort. No living sister or Mother to administer relief in that hour the most sad in the history of humanity. O the humanity. O the horrors of war. Truly it may be considered the most cruel and awful scourge which can befall a nation. Heaven grant there may be an end soon.”
But the expression reached a new level of popularity in the 1930s. On May 6, 1937, the LZ 129 Hindenburg zeppelin, a German commercial airship, crashed and burst into flames while attempting to land at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. It was carrying nearly 100 people; 36 died in the tragic event.
Herbert Morrison, a broadcaster for the station WLS Radio out of Chicago and a pilot himself, was sent to Lakehurst to cover what was supposed to be a routine landing for the airship, though its first time landing in America for its 1937 season. He was joined by sound engineer Charles Nehlsen. The two were in the middle of recording their broadcast, which was to be aired after the landing (it was not broadcast live; it aired nationwide on NBC Radio Network the next day), when the unexpected fiery accident occurred. These are Morrison’s words from the recording as the crash happened (as reported by Wikipedia, from the National Archives):
“It’s burst into flames! It’s burst into flames, and it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it, watch it, folks! Get out of the way, get out of the way! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast and all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh, it’s crashing… oh, four or five hundred feet into the sky, and it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. There’s smoke, and there’s flames, now, and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here! I told you; it – I can’t even talk to people, their friends are on there! Ah! It’s… it… it’s a… ah! I… I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it’s just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. I… I… I’m sorry. Honest: I… I can hardly breathe. I… I’m going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. Ah, ah… I can’t. Listen, folks; I… I’m gonna have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my
voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”
While Morrison went on to record more than a half hour’s worth of commentary following the disaster, he is remembered for the moments of recording during the crash and specifically for his exclamation oh, the humanity. Although he was a radio reporter, his depiction was dubbed onto a newsreel of the crash, which looks like a modern TV broadcast. (Interestingly, Morrison’s voice sounded higher on the broadcast than his usual radio announcer voice because of the way it was recorded.) He later served in World War II and ran for Congress three times.
It’s not entirely clear why the expression evolved to be used sarcastically, particularly when it came to popularity after its use to describe an undeniably horrible and tragic event, the Hindenburg crash. Nevertheless, popular sayings very often morph over time and come to be used differently than they were originally, and oh, the humanity is no different.
For instance, similarly, plead the fifth rose to popularity after televised Senate hearings in 1951, when it was used by crime bosses to avoid answering potentially damning questions in the legal setting. However today, it’s often used outside of courtrooms, any time someone doesn’t want to give a response to a question they’re asked.
Look back on the history of many common phrases here.
Although the expression oh, the humanity has historically been used to express shock and sadness over a terrible event or situation, nowadays it is most often used with a sense of humor or irony. It is typically written or said when something is perceived to be horrible but is really only a minor issue. It became a cultural idiom after Herb Morrison used it in his broadcast for radio station WLS about the Hindenburg disaster, which was recorded by Charlie Nehlsen.