The Grammarphobia Blog

Heavens to Good Queen Bess?

Q: I believe that Queen Elizabeth I was the source of the expression “Heavens to Betsy!” Good Queen Bess was known for playing the various political, diplomatic, and religious factions in Elizabethan England against each other, leaving them in a state of surprise or shock.

A: This is doubtful. As we wrote more than 10 years ago, in a post that was updated recently, the expression “Heavens to Betsy!” originated in the US and was not recorded until 1857. It could not have originated in Elizabethan England and remained unrecorded in writing for more than two centuries.

The earliest published reference found so far, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, 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!’ ”

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.

We have extensively researched “Heavens to Betsy!” and have concluded that the “Betsy” in the expression is untraceable—if she even existed.

The name, an extremely common one, was probably used in a generic way to refer to no one in particular, as in “every Tom, Dick, and Harry” and similar expressions.

We’ve written several posts about the generic use of common names, including one in 2007 about “Tom, Dick, and Harry,” and one in 2013 about “Johnny come lately.”

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