The strange exclamation in the title means “Fiddlesticks! Humbug! Nonsense!” Many people will recognize the phrase (for, among others, Dickens and Agatha Christie used it), but today hardly anyone requires Betty Martin’s help for giving vent to indignant amazement. However, the Internet is abuzz with questions about the origin of the idiom, guarded explanations, and readers’ comments. Therefore, considering that “The Oxford Etymologist” must keep abreast of the times, I decided to make public the information I have in my database, even though I, like most of my predecessors, am unable to offer any etymology of this puzzling ejaculation, as such phrases were called in the golden and innocent past.
In all my eye and Betty Martin, one segment causes no trouble. My eye, like my foot, is an expression of surprise, though my eye seems to be dated. All has no explanation, and the identity of Betty Martin remains a mystery. Two things should be taken into consideration before we embark on our fruitless but instructive journey.
First. Idioms teem with references to proper names. It’s all Cooper’s ducks with him means “It’s all over with this man.” In a year of Sundays, we would not be able to discover who Cooper was and what disaster befell his ducks, even though the Internet is aware of the idiom! The simile as busy (or thrang) as Throp’s (sic) wife is current in northern England. According to at least one legend, this lady “is known (!) to have hanged herself.” But, most likely, people invented the story in retrospect, as they often do, to explain the incomprehensible phrase, though Mr. Throp could of course exist and be married to an unhealthily active woman. The Internet did not miss him of course. However, the disturbing circumstance is that one can also be “as queer (= odd, strange) as Tim’s wife looked when she hanged herself” (an Irish idiom). Apparently, we have a substitution table, with the elements replacing one another, unless, of course, Throp’s first name was Tim and we are dealing with the same character. One can be lazy as Laurence’s (Ludlum’s, Lumley’s) dog, drunk as Davy’s cow (or Chloe), and as hot as Mary Palmer. In the middle of the nineteenth century, English schoolboys shouted on the arrival of the holiday: “Let’s sing Old Rose, and burn the bellows,” meaning “Let’s singe the master’s wig, and burn our books.” Those who have enough leisure on their hands may try to investigate the biography of old Rose. Mary Palmer looks like someone from history, but, though the origin of the simile has been more or less ascertained, the biography of the lady remains undiscovered. She may have been Betty Martin’s older married sister. Incidentally, at least one early novelist wrote: “That’s all my eye and Tommy” (possibly a facetious version of the better-known phrase, but perhaps a variant: consider the case of Tim’s hapless wife).
Second, countless sayings infiltrate language from popular culture, that is, from street songs, the music hall, scurrilous jokes repeated again and again, and evanescent urban legends. Traces left by such “texts” are hard and often impossible to recover. The Betty Martin exclamation surfaced in books in the late eighteenth century, and a record of her doings is lost, most probably forever. Some wit (wag) may have added the lady’s name to my eye, and the joke “found favor” with the public. Such is the history of a good deal of slang. All remains obscure, and it would be more profitable to dispense with it. Part of what I am about to say has been recycled many times, though the tales I singled out will be new to most. For some additional references see my Word Origins… (p. 265, note 2).
The suspicion that my eye and Betty Martin is a facetious alteration of some Latin phrase is old: allegedly, we are dealing with a word group garbled beyond recognition. Most often St. Martin has been pressed into service, but the Minoan goddess Britomartis bore him company in the 1943 book The Heritage of Britain by J. H. Harvey. The explanation usually repeated in popular sources traces the phrase to the experience of a British sailor who, during the service, heard the Latin invocation containing the words O mihi Beate Martine and repeated them in the form we know today. Here is the original story, as quoted by E. Cobham Brewer in the first edition of his immensely popular and equally unreliable Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: “A Jack Tar went into a foreign church, where he heard someone muttering these words ‘Ah mihi beate Martini’ (Ah! Grant me, blessed Martin). On giving an account of this adventure, Jack said he could not make much of it, but it seemed to him very like ‘All my eye and Betty Martin’”
The most cogent objections to this hypothesis were voiced at least as early as the middle of the nineteenth century. To begin with, no such public formulary exists, and the phonetic base of this derivation is beyond redemption. In England, Latin vowels and consonants were for a long time pronounced as though they were English. Caesar’s veni, vidi, vici had the form vee-nigh, vie-die, vie-sigh. Consequently, our naïve informant must have heard o mihi Beate as oh my-hi bee-a-tee or something like it (still not quite o my eye). Some people realized the problem and sent the sailor abroad.
A charming story, quite seriously repeated by learned men in the nineteen-twenties runs as follows: “A party of gypsies (sic) were apprehended, and taken before a magistrate; the constable gave evidence against an extraordinary woman named Betty Martin; she became violently excited, rushed up to him, and gave him a tremendous blow in the eye. After which the boys and rabble used to follow the unfortunate officer with cries of ‘My eye and Betty Martin’.” A more inspiring conjecture runs as follows: “ There is a phonetic resemblance in Betty Martin to Berta and Martine, Berta of the mill and Martino the thrasher, the Italian types of stupidity, alluded to in Dante, Paradiso, Canto XIII: 139.”
Here is another attack on the idiom. Charles Lee Lewes wrote in his Memoirs (Volume 1: 120-124) that a certain Elizabeth Grace married a young gentleman of a reputable family in county Meath (Ireland) ca. 1741 and refused to support Martin, saying: “Bah, bah, Mr. Gentleman, so I was made your property to maintain your idleness, was I? Oh, my eye, for that my dear. There…. Christopher Martin, there’s the door.” Betty afterwards married a Mr. Workman, became an actress, married many times, and was known for an adventurous life. (Search for Elizabeth Workman, actress.)
This array of guesses will, it can be hoped, dissuade prospective word sleuths from following the cold spoor. But one note should be added to the tale of Betty Martin. Even if we succeeded in discovering the true origin of the saying (for instance, in the Italian names occurring in Dante), it would be necessary to explain how the saying spread, in what milieu it was used, and under what circumstances it caught the popular fancy. Most probably, (all) my eye and Betty Martin is a piece of eighteenth-century slang going back to some anecdote, now lost, unless Betty Martin was added gratuitously to my eye. When there is no evidence, there can be no etymology. Origin unknown. Alas!
Images: (1) “The Drowning of Britomartis, 1547–59” Probably designed by Jean Cousin the Elder, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) “La charité de saint Martin” by Jean Fouquet, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Meath Ireland (BI Sect 7)” by Visitor from Wikishire, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image: “Bah! Humbug!” by Simon Fraser University, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.