Heavens to Murgatroyd


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Heavens to Murgatroyd'?

A stylised exclamation of surprise, similar to ‘Heavens to Betsy’.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Heavens to Murgatroyd'? – the quick version

The expression “Heavens to Murgatroyd” was coined by the writers of the Yogi Bear cartoon series in 1961. It is a variant of the earlier expression “Heavens to Betsy“. The first recorded use of the phrase in print was in an advertisement in the Ohio newspaper The Akron Beacon Journal in March 1961.

The phrase is often mistakenly attributed to Bert Lahr’s character in the 1944 film Meet the People. The Snagglepuss character, who popularized the phrase, is very similar to the persona that Bert Lahr adopted on-screen, but the phrase doesn’t appear in the film and was not coined until 17 years after the film was released.

The name “Murgatroyd” is a real surname, but it is not common in the United States. It is likely that the Yogi Bear writers chose this name because it sounded wacky to American ears.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Heavens to Murgatroyd'? – the full story

‘Heavens to Murgatroyd’ is American in origin and dates from the mid 20th century. The expression was popularized by the cartoon character Snagglepuss – a regular on the Yogi Bear Show in the 1960s.

If appearance is anything to go by, Snagglepuss was the template for the later Pink Panther. The character had two catchphrases – “Exit, stage left” and “Heavens to Murgatroyd”.

The expression is a variant of the earlier ‘Heavens to Betsy‘.

The first record that I can find of ‘heavens to Murgatroyd’ in print is from the Ohio newspaper The Akron Beacon Journal, March 1961, in a small ad advertising the sale of a ranch:

“Heavens to Murgatroyd” she’s a beauty.

It is quite likely that the copywriter got the line from the cartoon series, which was first aired in January 1961.

There is also an earlier newspaper cartoon, which appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and other US newspapers in October 1942.

The use of the words ‘heaven’ and ‘Murgatroyd’ there may just be coincidence and unconnected to the expression. It doesn’t seem plausible that the phrase was coined in 1942 and sat dormant until the 1960s.

Despite etymologists’ best efforts there isn’t any record of the phrase that pre-dates the Yogi Bear cartoon series and it is very likely that it was coined by the show’s writers.

The frequently repeated suggestion that the phrase was said by Bert Lahr’s character in the 1944 film Meet The People isn’t correct.

[I know, I’ve watched the film – which is 100 minutes that I’ll never get back – and at no time is the phrase or anything like it said by any character.].

The Snagglepuss character is very similar to the persona that Bert Lahr adopted on-screen and may well have been based on him. However, that’s as near to Bert Lahr as Heavens to Murgatroyd gets.

As with Betsy, we have no idea who Murgatroyd was. The various spellings of the name – as Murgatroid, Mergatroyd or Mergatroid to suggest that it wasn’t a reference to an actual person but just a fanciful expression made up because it sounded wacky.

No fewer than ten of the characters in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Ruddigore, 1887, are baronets surnamed “Murgatroyd”, eight of whom (or is that which?) are ghosts.

Where then did the librettist Sir William Gilbert get the name? It seems that Murgatroyd has a long history as a family name in the English aristocracy.

In his genealogy The Murgatroyds of Murgatroyd, Bill Murgatroyd states that, in 1371, a constable was appointed for the district of Warley in Yorkshire, UK. He adopted the name of Johanus de Morgateroyde – literally John of Moor Gate Royde or ‘the district leading to the moor’.

Murgatroyds may be thick on the ground in England but it isn’t a common name in the USA. It may have been adopted by the Yogi Bear screenwriters because it sounded wacky to American ears.

It’s long way from West Yorkshire to Jellystone Park but, linguistically at least, that seems to be the journey that Murgatroyd took.

Trend of heavens to murgatroyd in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.