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: Word sleuths have long asked themselves the same questions about “Heavens to Betsy,” an exclamation of surprise, shock, or fear.
All they’ve been able to learn is that the expression can be traced to 19th-century America. But “Betsy” herself remains stubbornly anonymous. As the Oxford English Dictionary comments: “The origin of the exclamation Heavens to Betsy is unknown.”
The earliest published reference found so far, according to the OED, comes from an 1857 issue of Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine: “ ‘Heavens to Betsy!’ he exclaims, clapping his hand to his throat, ‘I’ve cut my head off!’ ”
Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Dictionary of Quotations, found this hyphenated example in an 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?”
And the OED has this one from 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 there with a second “e.”)
The OED says the word “heaven,” used chiefly in the plural, has appeared since the 1500s in “exclamations expressing surprise, horror, excitement, etc.” It’s frequently accompanied by an intensifying adjective, Oxford adds, as in “good heavens,” “gracious heavens,” “great heavens,” “merciful heavens,” and so on.
In later use, the dictionary says, “extended forms” have included “Heaven and earth,” “Heavens above,” “Heavens alive,” and “Heavens to Betsy,” which it says originated and is chiefly heard in the US.
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.”
As for any more definitive explanation, we can’t offer one. This is one of the many language mysteries that we simply have to live with.
It’s even possible that the expression referred to nobody in particular, and that “Betsy” was used simply because it was a familiar feminine name. The generic use of names isn’t uncommon in such expressions, as we’ve written in posts about “Tom, Dick, and Harry” and “Johnny-come-lately.”
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.”
[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 23, 2018.]