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Heavens to Betsy

Posted by Bruce Kahl on May 27, 2000

In Reply to: Heavens to Betsy posted by Sherre' Hafermann on May 27, 2000

The meaning is simple enough: it's just a mild exclamation of shock or surprise.

The phrase seems to be one of those traditional sayings that have been around in the language for generations, but which only latterly have come to be recorded in print. The big Oxford English Dictionary has a first citation from 1914 but I found the following published in 1892:

Huckleberries from New England Hills
R.T. Cooke
"Heavens to Betsy!' gasped Josiah."

Some have tried to trace it to the Revolutionary War and to Betsy Ross, 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 lexicography, along with the similar "Heavens to Murgatroyd". Unless someone reading this knows different?

See: the meaning and origin of the phrase 'Heavens to Murgatroyd'.