Q: This headline was on a book review in the New Yorker: “Believe You Me.” I’ve heard the expression many times, but the construction is really odd. Where does it come from?
A: The verb “believe” has been seen since the 1500s in various expressions used to strengthen an assertion. These parenthetical expressions are usually set off by commas, dashes, or parentheses.
The earliest example for the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary (a “you”-less version) is from “The Steele Glas,” a 1576 poem by George Gascoigne:
“This is the cause (beleue me now my Lorde) / That Realmes do rewe, from high prosperity. / That Kings decline, from princely gouernment.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)
In the simple imperative construction “believe me,” the subject “you” is not stated, but understood. In the version you’re asking about, “believe you me,” the subject makes an appearance.
The earliest example in the OED for the longer version is from the Oct. 27, 1808, issue of Eye, a Philadelphia magazine: “Now this was wrong, believe you me.”
This later citation is from the July 1877 issue of Catholic World: “We’ve not come to the worst yet, believe you me.”
And this one is from Late and Soon, a 1943 novel by E. M. Delafield: “Believe you me, in all the years, and all the adventures I’ve deliberately sought out—God forgive me—it’s never been like this.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)
Another version of the usage showed up in the mid-18th century. The first citation in the OED is from Tobias Smollett’s 1749 translation of Gil Blas, a picaresque novel by the French writer Alain René Le Sage:
“Meanwhile, (would you believe it?) this ferocious disposition, this haughty woman, is, within these two months, entirely changed.”
Still another variation appeared in these lines from a June 27, 1792, letter written by the English poet William Cowper:
“Believe it or not, as you chuse, / The doctrine is certainly true, / That the future is known to the Muse / And poets are oracles too.”
This version showed up in the Nov. 17, 1844, issue of the New York Herald: “We beg permission to call the attention of our readers to the following … You better believe it.”
And here’s an 1856 example from the Yale Literary Magazine of that expression at work in a sentence: “You’d better believe, I’ll live in the clover.”
In looking into these expressions, we came across an entry in John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins that says “Believing and loving are closely related,” an idea noted in the OED, though with less certainty.
Ayto says the verb “believe,” which evolved in Old English from “gelēfan” to “belēfan,” comes from the reconstructed prehistoric Germanic word galaubjan, which “meant ‘hold dear, love,’ and hence ‘trust in, believe.’ ” He says galaubjan in turn comes from the prehistoric base laub-, which he describes as the source for the English word “love.”
By the way, the headline that got your attention was later changed in the May 8, 2017, issue of the New Yorker to “The Art and Activism of Grace Paley.” An editor’s note at the end of the review doesn’t give a reason for the change.