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Word Nerd: Heavens, who were Betsy, Bob, and Fanny Adams?

Have you ever come across an expression that you haven’t seen or heard in decades? This happened to me some months ago while watching a German movie with English subtitles that featured a concentration camp scene with some horrible goings-on.

To my astonishment, the subtitle translated the German ejaculation of despair with an understated “heavens to Betsy.” For those not familiar with the expression, it is a mild American exclamation of surprise or shock, and thus the translation hardly seemed adequate to describe the situation.

However, the origin of this phrase and the identity of Betsy are total mysteries. It is one of the euphemistic non-curses prevalent more than 50 years ago and whose usage has all but vanished.

The OED’s first citation of the phrase is in 1857 from the short story Serenade by Frederick W. Saunders found in Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine: ‘Heaven’s to Betsy!’, he exclaims, clapping his hand to his throat, ‘I’ve cut my head off’.”

It seems the selection of the name Betsy as the subject of this minced oath was arbitrary. According to Charles Earle Funk who in 1955 used the phrase Heavens to Betsy as the title of his book on interesting phrases, its origin was “completely unsolvable.”

On the other hand, we do have a leading candidate for the subject of the expression “Bob’s your uncle” that is used to express the ease with which a particular task can be achieved. The most popular theory relates it to an act of nepotism in the 1880s. British political pundits were bemused when the young and inexperienced Arthur Balfour (later Prime Minister in 1902) was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland by his uncle Robert (Bob) Gascoyne-Cecil, Marquess of Salisbury, then Prime Minister.

Hence, the theory suggests that if Bob is your uncle, anything is possible and you can get everything you want.

Some etymologists believe there is no basis for this origin and that it represents an example of a back-formation, i.e., an explanation that is invented after the event.

An alternate theory points out that in 18th century slang there was an expression “all is bob” that meant “all is well” and that this may be the progenitor of the expression.

The problem with both these theories is that the expression is only found in print in the 1920s. This makes the latter origin theory appear particularly dubious.

It also seems somewhat odd that an expression connected to the nepotism of an uncle to his nephew would only surface after both men were out of office. So it would appear that there exists reasonable doubt about the true identity of our aforementioned Betsy and Bob, the subjects of the two discussed phrases.

For those people who prefer onomastic certainty, I am pleased to relate that at least in one instance we are positive about the identity of a person referenced in an expression.

Such is the case with the phrase sweet Fanny Adams where we have detailed knowledge about the subject. While this expression is very popular in Britain and Australia, it is not widely known in North America.

I am aware of it because it is one of my partner Carol’s favourite expressions to refer to people of little significance. Officially, Sweet Fanny Adams means “nothing” and it is often used as a euphemism for the expression “sweet f*** all.” Fanny Adams was an eight year old who was murdered in Alton England in August 1867 by Frederick Baker, a 24-year-old solicitor’s clerk. Her mutilated body was found in a field near Alton. This heinous crime was widely reported and drew much sympathy due to the victim’s age.

A ballad about the murder described the murder victim as having a sweet nature and before long British sailors turned this tragedy into sick comedy as the expression “sweet Fanny Adams” came to refer to the inedible meat rations the sailors were served, likening the meat to the dead girl’s remains. In fact, a dictionary of slang in 1889 defines Fanny Adams as “navy, tinned mutton.”

Eventually, the phrase “sweet Fanny Adams” became a substitute for the expression “sweet f*** all,” often rendered initially as s.f.a seeing that both expressions sport the same initials.

So Bob’s your uncle according to Aunts Betsy and Fanny. Howard’s latest book is Wordplay; Arranged and Deranged Wit.

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