May 2017
Southern Translation

Southern Translation

SENTENCE USAGE: "Heavens to Betsy, boy! You’ve been in your room two hours and haven’t even started your homework!"

Who is Betsy?

This American phrase is a mild exclamation of surprise. It has been in circulation since, primarily restricted to America, the latter part of the 19th century, although its use faded throughout the 20th century. It is now something of an anachronism. The first example of it can be found in the U.S. journal, Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, Volume 5, January 1857:

"‘Heavens to Betsy!’ he exclaims."

Of course, what we would like to know is if Betsy was a real person and, if so, who? Various theories have been put forward. The most common of these is that she was Betsy Ross, who stitched the first American flag. Another is that the Betsy referred to is the slang name early U.S. settlers used for their favorite pistol or rifle. Neither of these theories comes accompanied by any evidence and, as always, speculation must be put into etymological limbo. It is unlikely she will be identified.

For phrases containing names that are genuinely eponymous, that is, named after a known person or fictional character, it isn’t difficult to trace the person concerned, as in sweet Fanny Adams, kiss me Hardy, etc. When we come to phrases such as "Mickey Finn" and "happy as Larry," where there is doubt as to the named person, a strong case can be made to suggest the names were invented. That seems to be the case with Betsy.

The etymologist Charles Earle Funk published "Heavens to Betsy! and Other Curious Sayings" in 1955. In that, he ventured the opinion that the origins of heavens to Betsy were "completely unsolvable."