Q: I saw the expression “heavens to Betsy” in the paper the other day and it reminded me of my late, dearly beloved mother, who used to use it at least once a week. Where does the expression come from, and who was Betsy?
A: You may be surprised to learn this, but word sleuths have spent a lot of time trying to track down “heavens to Betsy,” an exclamation of surprise, shock, or fear.
The first published reference, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is in a short-story collection by Rose Terry Cooke, Huckleberries Gathered From New England Hills (1892): “’Heavens to Betsey!’ gasped Josiah.” (“Betsy,” as you can see, is spelled here with a second “e.”)
Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Dictionary of Quotations, has tracked the expression even farther, to an 1878 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine: “Heavens-to-Betsy! You don’t think I ever see a copper o’ her cash, do ye?”
Some people have suggested that the exclamation was inspired by the Minna Irving poem “Betsy’s Battle Flag” (about Betsy Ross) or the nickname of Davy Crockett’s rifle, Old Betsy, but language authorities have debunked these ideas.
In a posting to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, the etymologist Gerald Cohen has suggested that Betsy Ross may indeed have inspired the expression even if the Irving poem didn’t. He adds that “heavens to Betsy” may be an elliptical way of saying “may the heavens be gracious to Betsy.”
But where, you ask, did the expression originate? Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says the origin is unknown. I, too, fear that this is one of the many language mysteries that we simply have to live with.
The lexicographer Charles Earle Funk, in his appropriately titled book Heavens to Betsy!, says he spent “an inordinate amount of time” on this problem before deciding that it’s “completely unsolvable.”
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