Q From Aquarius: I was wondering about your opinion regarding the origin of the phrase all my eye and Betty Martin. A bit of research turns up some rather spurious-sounding theories about derivation from a possibly non-existent Latin prayer, but I’ve got my doubts about that. Do you have any further suggestions?
A You’re right to be sceptical. This is among the most puzzling phrases in the language. Most authorities say firmly that the stories about the Latin prayer are almost certainly off beam, but having looked into it I’m not so sure.
Footnotes first. The phrase or saying, all my eye and Betty Martin means that something is total and complete nonsense. It is found in British English from the eighteenth century on, but is hardly known today. It is first recorded in a letter of 1781 that was collected in W H Hutton’s Burford Papers. We also know that all my eye, with the same sense, is at least half a century older.
By the 1780s, the phrase was clearly well established and well-known. Jon Bee (a pseudonym for one John Badcock, about whom very little is known) suggested in 1823 in his Slang, a Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, that it came from a Latin prayer, Ora pro mihi, beate Martine (“Pray for me, blessed Martin”), presumably St Martin of Tours, the patron saint of innkeepers and reformed drunkards. Most scholars reject this, since no trace of this prayer has been found anywhere in the Latin liturgy, and it’s ungrammatical anyway. If you’re looking for an even more way-out suggestion, try Dr L A Waddell, who in 1914 suggested in his book The Phoenician Origins of Britons, Scots, and Anglo-Saxons that the phrase came from O mihi, Brito Martis, or “Oh (bring help) to me, Brito Martis”. She was a goddess associated with Crete, whom Dr Waddell linked to Britain via the Phoenicians who traded for Cornish tin. Don’t believe a word of it.
The truth is, nobody really knows anything much about where the saying came from, except that Betty Martin was pretty obviously tacked on to the end of the existing all my eye (in similar vein, Londoners later created all my eye and elbow, all my eye and grandmother, and all my eye and Tommy, among others, as well as shortening it to the exclamation my eye!, which remained common, especially in the US, until comparatively recently). Was Betty Martin a real person in London in the late eighteenth-century? Eric Partridge guessed so, but she remains a ghostly figure. Charles Lee suggested in his memoirs in 1805 that there had once been an abandoned woman named Grace who married a Mr Martin, but became known as Betty Martin, and who was known for using all my eye a lot. The letter mentioned earlier said it was “a sea phrase that Admiral Jemm frequently makes use of”, which might make a Betty Martin some long defunct bit of nautical equipment.
It’s even possible that there really was a Latin prayer, despite the nay-saying of scholars. Beate Martine would have been the phrase used in calling on St Martin, and he was a popular saint invoked in medieval times and later. I have found the phrase Ora pro nobis beate Martine (“Pray for us, blessed Martin”) in a prayer for intercession in a French book of hours of about 1500 in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. That may have been a once-off, but there just might have been others, enough that beate Martine was common enough to be corrupted and tacked on to all my eye.
There we must leave matters, deeply unsatisfactorily, I know.