As is the case with many of the common phrases we explore here at The Word Counter, you’d be hard pressed to figure out the definition of the expression heavens to Betsy by considering the definitions of the individual words it contains. That’s because it’s an idiom with a figurative meaning that’s entirely unique to the saying as a whole. Read on for the scoop.
What Does Heavens to Betsy Mean?
The saying heavens to Betsy is used to express shock or surprise. Grammatically speaking, in terms of parts of speech, this saying is an interjection. Interjections are words or phrases that convey a sudden, spontaneous feeling or reaction. These words and phrases are, as their name indicates, typically “thrown” in between sentences or thoughts. They’re used in exclamation (forceful expression), and thus very often end in an exclamation point, although they don’t have to.
Here are some example sentences using the phrase heavens to Betsy:
- What was that loud noise in the kitchen? Heavens to Betsy!
- Heavens to Betsy! I can’t believe you guys surprised me with this party; I had no idea you were planning something.
- Oh Mom, heavens to Betsy, I got an A+ on my final exam!
- I loved your bright, big, bold costume in the play, John! When you came out on stage I couldn’t help but exclaim under my breath, “Heavens to Betsy!”
As you can see from these examples, there’s no particular rule about where, exactly, to throw in an interjection when speaking or writing. Heavens to Betsy and other interjections can come before or after a sentence, or they can even stand alone.
Who Is Betsy? And Why Do We Say Heavens to Betsy?
This may come as a disappointment, but there isn’t a particular Betsy that inspired this phrase—at least, not that we can be sure of; more in a minute. (This is also the case for the common sayings no way, Jose! and for Pete’s sake.)
The phrase is what’s known as a mild oath or a minced oath, a euphemistic expression created by substituting or otherwise changing a profane or blasphemous portion of an original saying to make it less offensive. In other words, it’s a way to swear, in a sense, without being too vulgar (like saying shoot, fudge, gosh, heck, and darn). Heavens to Betsy is a variant of the saying for heaven’s sake, a euphemism itself for the expressions for Christ’s sake and for God’s sake. It may also be a euphemistic variant of hell’s bells.
Why the name Betsy was chosen for the expression, no one is entirely sure. Some believe it’s in reference to a real person named Betsy: Betsy Ross, who is credited with making the very first American flag during the Revolutionary War. Others think the Betsy in the expression wasn’t a person at all, rather a rifle; it’s said that early settlers would call their favorite rifle “Old Betsy.” The mystery surrounding Betsy caused etymologist Charles Earle Funk, who wrote a book about curious phrases in 1955 and titled it Heavens to Betsy, to deem the expression’s origins “completely unsolvable.”
Likewise, no one is certain when it was first used. Some reputable sources date the phrase to 1914. And yet, it seems to have appeared in print earlier than that, in 1857, in a short story published in Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine.
In recent decades, some have thought the term old-fashioned or antiquated, so you may see or hear it used less nowadays than other idioms discussed here at The Word Counter. (That said, in the 1990s, a group of musicians from Olympia, Washington, liked it so much they named their band Heavens to Betsy. It was the first band of Sleater-Kinney vocalist/guitarist Corin Tucker.)
Heavens to Betsy is an idiom. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
Taken literally, heavens to Betsy makes no sense at all! You simply must know that the saying is an interjection, used to express shock and surprise.
Discover the meanings and origins of many more of the English language’s most fascinating idioms.
Synonyms for Heavens to Betsy
There are countless ways to express astonishment, including other interesting short phrases as well as single words. The long list of synonyms for heavens to Betsy includes:
- My goodness / Oh my goodness
- Goodness gracious
- No way
- Holy moly
- Great Scott
- Great Caesar’s ghost
- And the list goes on…
You may also sometimes see or hear the expression heavens to Murgatroyd, which means the same thing as heavens to Betsy and simply subs in a different name. Who was Murgatroyd? That’s a mystery, too. But this variant of the phrase became popular in the 1960s, as it was a catchphrase of a popular Hanna-Barbera cartoon character at the time named Snagglepuss.
The idiomatic phrase heavens to Betsy is an exclamation of surprise. Use it in speaking and writing when you want to convey that you’re astonished or shocked. Unfortunately, language historians aren’t certain which Betsy inspired the phrase, or if it was even inspired by a real person at all. Fortunately, the mystery surrounding its etymology hasn’t kept people from using this fun and unique saying over the past century.