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Heavens to Betsy

Q From Mark Lord: I am looking for the origin and meaning of the phrase Heavens to Betsy.

A The meaning is simple enough: it’s a mild American exclamation of shock or surprise. It’s dated, only rarely encountered in print and then most often as an evocation of times past. Heavens to Betsy is associated in my mind with mature females of the Prohibition era or earlier (though this is probably no more than a reflection of recent reading).

As to where it came from, nobody has the slightest idea. It seems to be one of those old-time euphemistic non-curses that were active in the spoken language for decades, but which came to be recorded in print only long after their creation. By then, of course, any knowledge of the circumstances had been lost. The Oxford English Dictionary has its first citation from 1914, but electronic searches can take that back more than half a century:

The night, as I have before mentioned, is dark, and they do not observe a new Manilla clothes line stretched tightly across the lawn, until Bob, who has his head raised to watch the second story windows, is, as he approaches obliquely, sawed smartly across the neck. “Heavens to Betsy!” he exclaims, clapping his hand to his throat, “I’ve cut my head off!”

Serenade, by Frederick W Saunders, a short story in Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, Boston, May 1857. Thanks to Paul Dover for spotting this.

Some have tried to trace it to the Revolutionary War and to Betsy Ross, maker of the first US flag, but have failed; others think it may have something to do with the frontiersman’s rifle, often called Old Betsy, but there’s no evidence that saying and name are associated. Charles Earle Funk, who in 1955 used the phrase as part of the title of a book about curious phrases, said that its origins were “completely unsolvable”.

We have to leave it as one of the great mysteries of etymology, along with the similar heavens to Murgatroyd. Unless someone reading this knows different?

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Page created 20 Nov 1999; Last updated 12 Nov 2011