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I hear the term 'act of god' frequently when the service desk at my company is discussing issues caused by weather etc.

I was pretty surprised by this and left wondering if this is commonplace? (I work in IT for a credit union)

Should I bother mentioning to someone that this may seem discrimanatory or unprofessional? Are there any legal concerns associated with using a term like this?

EDIT:

I find it surprising when I consider that we have to say happy holidays etc.

And I would think that people who dont believe in god, or just diferent gods may find this unproffessional.

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I'm not sure why it would be considered discriminatory? Or do you mean unprofessional as in it makes the helpdesk appear lazy by assigning blame in that way to the fault? The phrase itself is defined as "an instance of uncontrollable natural forces in operation." –  Mike Feb 5 at 16:20
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It's not clear from your current question text what exactly your concerns are: "I was pretty surprised by this" - this is a common English idiom, I'm surprised you were surprised; "discrimanatory" - against whom?; "unprofessional" - for what reason? –  AakashM Feb 5 at 16:23
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"Holy Cow" is a common phrase in the US and has nothing to do with worshiping bovine. –  JeffO Feb 5 at 16:50
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Voted to re-open, it seems that inserting the phrase "are there any legal concerns.." into a question is like a magic spell to get the question closed as "seeking legal advice", even if everything else about it is a reasonable workplace question. –  Carson63000 Feb 6 at 0:00
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There are lots of unexpected things that can happen. Extraordinary events (even those caused by man) are usually written in to contracts as Force Majeure. For acts that are extraordinary and not caused by man, usually the term Act of God is used in contracts. If you are dealing with clients whose contract specifically excludes responsibility for Acts of God, it is quite possible that people are instructed to use the term to avoid liability. I think this may be better on English Language and Usage though! –  jmac Feb 6 at 23:53
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3 Answers

up vote 16 down vote accepted

The term might seem outdated (especially in an increasingly secular society) but it is a generally accepted term for environmental events that are beyond human control, such as the weather or other natural events (including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis). It is a common term in the insurance industry too, and even people who are non-religious/atheistic understand the meaning.

I don't think you need to be concerned with the phrase seeming discriminatory or unprofessional (except possibly to extremely sensitive atheists - but that would probably be an extreme case), though if you are very concerned, you could try using the phrase (extreme) environmental events (or maybe extrahuman factors?) to refer to the same phenomena, although people might not understand what you're referring to immediately.

In the case where the phrase might be used in a context where there's possible legal consequences (such as in an insurance policy or some legal document), a definition must be given, otherwise people will try to get out of excluded coverage by saying "well since there's no god, there're no 'acts of god', so pay up!". You'll probably want someone on your legal team to provide a proper definition of "acts of god" if you will be using it in such as context.

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Act_of_God and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Force_majeure


As for your comment about "happy holidays":

Saying "Merry Christmas" assumes that the person receiving the greeting celebrates Christmas. People might not celebrate Christmas for a number of reasons, include: they are not Christian but are of another faith; they are atheist. In this case, they might feel excluded from the greeting since celebrating Christmas is not something they do. The phrase "Happy Holidays" still expresses a wish that the receiver of the greeting have an enjoyable season, but does not assume that they will be celebrating Christmas. This makes the greeting more inclusive since the person receiving the greeting could interpret it in the context of whatever they plan to do and celebrate.

The phrase "act of god" does not assume a specific faith, so the listener can assume that the phrase refers to whichever deity (or deities, if they prefer) they wish to attribute the even to.

IF the phrase named a specific god, such as "Acts of Jehova", "Acts of YHVH", "Acts of Oden", "Acts of Tlaloc", "Acts of ${deity}",... then I think it would be much more likely to offend those who do not believe in ${deity}.

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I don't think anyone would be offended by Acts of Thor! :) –  MrFox Feb 5 at 16:40
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@MrFox: Except Loki. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Feb 5 at 16:41
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I've always thought it was offensive to Theists, not Atheists - to say that God killed a bunch of people with an earthquake always seemed like it should be offensive to religious people. But I guess if they are ok with it, who am I to complain? –  BrianDHall Feb 5 at 19:27
    
@BrianDHall: Really? Because most religions I know have at least one or two stories where god(s) kills mortals. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Feb 5 at 19:30
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I think the only people who would be offended by a common turn of phrase such as this are those people who go around looking for things to be offended by. I certainly wouldn't expect it to be defined as offensive or discriminatory, especially in the US or UK where it already has a specific legal meaning. –  RobM Feb 7 at 8:40
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It's got such a long history that one would be hard pressed to raise it as discriminatory. As @FrustratedWithFormsDesigner points out - there has been a need to describe "this thing was so big, and so unexpected that there was no way that we mere humans could have found a way to avoid/mitigate the consequences". It's needed in law in several cases, given the fact that "due diligence" is a cause for litigation and assignment of blame - so there needs to be some way to say "we just can't cover this one".

For me, this fits into the realm of just conforming to the idea that this country and it's legal precedents where largely formed under a Christian majority. In the US, our current says "In God We Trust", our pledge of allegiance is "One Nation Under God", the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independance includes "to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them" and I can probably find more.

There's a point where the law just falls back to this.

Certainly over time, I'd bet that society will continue to argue these out. I've heard the "it's just how we do it" argument continue to be used for the continuation of Christmasification, and I know there have been plenty of issues over God in the Pledge of Allegiance.

If it bugs you, or you have concerns that a particular client or colleague would have a problem here, the question may actually go to legal depending on the conditions. Extreme environmental event sounds good to me but if I was putting it into a formal mail or contract, I'd run it by legal just to make sure I wasn't causing an issue.

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My understanding (don't have time for thorough research ATM) is that "In God We Trust" and "One Nation Under God" were relatively new. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Feb 5 at 16:40
    
Define relatively - the Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pledge_of_Allegiance) and the "In God We Trust" started with the star spangled banner in 1812, but wasn't printed on currency until the 1870s (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_God_we_trust). My point was that the thread of God and US legal stuff is pretty long standing and not easily and immediately separated... –  bethlakshmi Feb 6 at 15:17
    
Yes, though the country was around for close to 100 years before the Pledge of Allegiance (1780's if my memory is correct). –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Feb 6 at 15:32
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It is a fairly antiquated term, but it is certainly used and its meaning is widely understood as "a dramatic and unpredicted weather event."

The term originated in the United States sometime in the last century. As seperation of religion and workplace did not exist at the beginning of the century, and the US is a Christian state with "God" right in its motto, it fit.

In lieu of saying "act of God" you can say "extreme weather conditions" or "unpredictable, theologically-agnostic natural disaster."

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"The term originated..." - OED's ($) first usage citation is 1611. –  AakashM Feb 5 at 20:00
    
Well played.... –  itcouldevenbeaboat Feb 5 at 20:01
    
I think acts of god cover more than weather. It's just weather is by far the most common act of god. Is an earthquake not an act of god? –  Loren Pechtel Feb 5 at 23:29
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