When something happens to us, or we get told something that surprises us, there are going to be very few of us who will straight up say “this information is something that has caught me by surprise”. Instead, we’ll use phrases that show just how surprised we are, but are much shorter.
The phrase “Heavens to Betsy” is used as a mild exclamation of surprise. It’s from the USA. It was used a lot in the 19th century but has since died down over time.
Today, I want to really delve into what it means, where it comes from, and why it fell out of popularity.
Origin of the phrase “Heavens to Betsy”
The term “Heavens to Betsy” was first used in “Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine Vol 5 January 1857”.
As you can probably guess from the name, this was a magazine that would only have cost you $1. This might seem like nothing, but back then, it was a pretty average price for a magazine.
When the magazine was popular, books were still relatively expensive, and the vast majority of people would not have been able to afford them. But instead of just going without a good story, many of them would instead buy these kinds of magazines so that they would be able to enjoy stories for a low price.
Who was Betsy?
There is somewhat of a debate as to who “Betsy” is. There are two prevailing theories.
The first one that it’s a reference to Betsy Ross, in case you don’t know who I mean, she was the one who stitched the first-ever USA flag.
The other theory is the “Betsy” is a common nickname that early settlers in the USA would give to their guns. There is no evidence whatsoever for either. Perhaps the actual truth is that none of these is where the name really comes from.
Even when it first came about, “Heavens to Betsy” wasn’t super popular. After it’s initial use in 1857, it was used once again in 1905, but it didn’t start to really gain in popularity until 1951. From 1951, it became a regular part of the American lexicon.
The phrase became most popular in 1983. But ever since then, it has stopped being used anywhere near as often as it used to.
Strange how it was used once, then unknown for decades, then once again, faded into oblivion. Who knows, maybe one day it will be popular again.
How it was viewed
The term “Heavens to Betsy” was never a phrased that would have been highly respected by literary scholars. For the most part, it would just have been used in casual conversation between friends or written down in stories that were supposed to be read for fun.
Nobody has ever thought “Heavens to Betsy” is some kind of Shakespearian language that people are going to study in the future. There are currently very few formal documents that use the phrase.
But language isn’t just about the Shakespeares and the Homers. It’s also about the regular people and the kind of language they would use.
Why it’s not popular anymore
Is there any reason why it stopped being used? There are phrases even older that we will still use to this day.
So why have they survived but “Heavens to Betsy” faded into the darkness?
One of the key reasons as to why it’s not popular anymore is probably because it’s seen as old fashioned. It’s one of those phrases that make it sound like you don’t know any more modern terminology.
Plus, in the modern age, we tend to swear more than we used to. Swear words tend to have more of an impact. Plus “Fuck” is a lot shorter than “Heavens to Betsy”.
Why it should be popular again
I, however, would argue that “Heavens to Betsy” deserves to make a comeback. There are times when something surprises us, but not to the extent that it warrants saying a swear word. I feel like because we swear words so much, their impact has become diluted and being cursed at means nothing anymore.
This phrase is a part of our history. And the language we use is a big part of how we preserve our history. By using older phrases, we can have a better understanding of how language used to be.
On top of that, it is a pretty cool phrase.
What is Heaven?
Let’s talk about the first word. Heaven.
Many people will think of Heaven as being a part of the Abrahamic religions, it’s the place you go when you die.
But most cultures around the world and across time have the idea that there is a wonderful place that you get to go to when you die. In some religions, everyone goes to Heaven, in some, it’s only if you’re good, and in others, you keep on getting reincarnated until you’re good enough to get into Heaven.
In Old English, “Heaven” was “Heofon”. This wasn’t what it means today, it just meant “home of God”. No matter what religion you follow, Heaven is the place where your God/gods spend their time.
“Heofon” comes from the Proto-Germanic “Hinin”, meaning “Sky”. It’s where the modern Germans get their word for sky “Himmel” from. In the past, most people thought that Heaven was in the sky, and it was where God lived.
In wasn’t actually until the 14th century when “Heaven” was used to refer to a place of bliss. Before then, nobody would have said: “I went on holiday, and it was Heaven”.
What does Betsy mean?
Betsy is probably one of the most American sounding names you can possibly imagine. But the name it comes from is one of the most British sounding names you can possibly imagine.
Betsy comes from Elizabeth. The name of our current queen.
Elizabeth means “God is my oath”. So girls called “Elizabeth” are supposed to be of the mindset that they have made an oath to God to be the best and most moral person they can be.
Other alternatives to Elizabeth include Liz, Lizzy, Betty, Beth, and Bethany.
Some of them are still popular today.
In 1991, a new punk rock band was formed. And the name of this band was “Heavens to Betsy”. In all honesty, this band was never particularly big.
Even when they were in their heyday, most people would not have heard of them. In fact, if you were to ask me, I probably wouldn’t be able to name you a single one of their songs.
Despite never being too popular, they understood the impact that the phrase “Heavens to Betsy” can have. Since the phrase is one that you say when you’re shocked, which is how they wanted people to feel when they listened to their music.
Alternatives to “Heavens to Betsy”
If you ever want to show what you’re shocked at something, but you’re not the type of person who likes to swear, but for some reason, you don’t like “Heavens to Betsy”, there are plenty of other alternatives that you can choose from.
“Good God” is saying that you are so shocked, you’re looking to God to give you help and guidance.
“What the Hell?” is showing that what you’ve just seen is something that you would usually only expect to see if you ever go to Hell.
“Wow” is short, snappy, and it gets your point across super quickly.
Is it Blasphemy?
There would be some who might argue that “Heavens to Betsy” is blasphemy. One of the ten commandments is “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain”.
That’s just Bible talk for “don’t use God when talking about bad stuff”.
The reasoning would be that by talking about Heaven to express your shock, you’re taking the Lord’s name in vain.
But I would argue this isn’t the case. Saying expressions of shock that talk about God or Heaven or not used to insult God but to ask him for guidance. And most Christians wouldn’t mind if you said “Heavens to Betsy”.
Idioms from the 19th Century
The 19th century gave us a fantastic wealth of idioms. Most of them died out over time, but there are a few that you’ll still be hearing people say today.
“Open Secret” is often used in the news to talk about Hollywood. It’s a secret that most people within certain circles are aware of, but very few people outside of those circles have ever heard of.
Do you like the cartoon “Tom and Jerry”? Before it was a cartoon, it was a term that meant “men about town”.
“Tit for Tat” is often used when talking about an argument.
And when the sky gives lots of water, you might say “It’s raining cats and dogs”.
“Heavens to Betsy” is a phrase that you can use when you’re talking about something that gives you a bit of a shock, but not enough of a surprise to warrant swearing.
The phrase comes from the 19th century, and while it was trendy during the 1980s, it has since become less popular.
Many debates are surrounding this phrase. Who was Betsy? Why did we stop using it? Is it blasphemy? Should we bring it back?
But regardless as to what you think, it’s interesting to think about how language comes about and changes over time.