Who was Betty Martin?

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P Terry Hunt asked:

I was struck by part of the passage quoted from the Coleridge poem, which I understand dates from 1815:

"All my I! all my I!
He's a heretic dog who but adds Betty Martin!"

I'm sure many are familiar with the (now somewhat old-fashioned) British slang expression "All my eye [sic] and Betty Martin" – often reduced to only its first three words – meaning roughly something one believes to be nonsense. I find it surprising (recency illusion?) that this expression might be old enough even to be derived from Coleridge; however, his use of it appears to be an allusion to an already-known expression. Does anyone know the actual provenance of the idiom, and who Betty Martin might have been?

The OED gives a citation from 1781:

1781 S. CRISPE Let. 16 Oct. in W. H. Hutton Burford Papers (1905) iv. 69 Physic, to old, crazy Frames, like ours, is all my eye and Betty Martin — (a sea phrase that Admiral Jemm frequently makes use of).

A quick web search turns up this entry from E. Cobham Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898:

All my Eye (and) Betty Martin: All nonsense. Joe Miller says that a Jack Tar went into a foreign church, where he heard some one uttering these words—Ah! mihi, bea’te Martine (Ah! [grant] me, Blessed Martin). On giving an account of his adventure, Jack said he could not make much out of it, but it seemed to him very like “All my eye and Betty Martin.” Grose has “Mihi beatæ Martinis” [sic]. The shortened phrase, “All my eye,” is very common.

And this reference to a more recent source, with different alleged Latin:

"ALL MY EYE AND BETTY MARTIN! – inf. (informal) baloney! Various derivations proposed. The most likely would seem to be 'Mihi beata mater' which appears to be Latin for something like 'Grant to me, blessed Mother'). According to one legend, the imperfectly understood phrase was reported back to Britain by a sailor who had been abroad and to him it sounded like 'all my eye and Betty Martin.' The British often shorten the expression to 'all my eye!' .American 'my eye!' Other American synonyms are 'hogwash' and 'eyewash.'" From "British English A to Zed" by Norman W. Schur (HarperCollins, New York, 1987).

Michael Quinion's extensive scholarly evaluation is here. Summarizing:

The phrase or saying, all my eye and Betty Martin means that something is total and complete nonsense. It is found in British English from the eighteenth century on, but is hardly known today. It is first recorded in a letter of 1781 that was collected in W H Hutton’s Burford Papers. We also know that all my eye, with the same sense, is at least half a century older.

By the 1780s, the phrase was clearly well established and well-known. Jon Bee (a pseudonym for one John Badcock, about whom very little is known) suggested in 1823 in his Slang, a Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, that it came from a Latin prayer, Ora pro mihi, beate Martine (“Pray for me, blessed Martin”), presumably St Martin of Tours, the patron saint of innkeepers and reformed drunkards. Most scholars reject this, since no trace of this prayer has been found anywhere in the Latin liturgy, and it’s ungrammatical anyway. [...]

The truth is, nobody really knows anything much about where the saying came from, except that Betty Martin was pretty obviously tacked on to the end of the existing all my eye [...]

The letter mentioned earlier said it was “a sea phrase that Admiral Jemm frequently makes use of”, which might make a Betty Martin some long defunct bit of nautical equipment.

It’s even possible that there really was a Latin prayer, despite the nay-saying of scholars. Beate Martine would have been the phrase used in calling on St Martin, and he was a popular saint invoked in medieval times and later. I have found the phrase Ora pro nobis beate Martine (“Pray for us, blessed Martin”) in a prayer for intercession in a French book of hours of about 1500 in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. That may have been a once-off, but there just might have been others, enough that beate Martine was common enough to be corrupted and tacked on to all my eye.

There we must leave matters, deeply unsatisfactorily, I know.

"Beate mater" does occur in Latin prayers, e.g. as "Beata mater et intacta virgo gloriosa regina mundi, intercede pro nobis ad Dominum" in the Officium Beatae Mariae. But I don't know of any evidence for a common form of prayer in which the sequence "mihi beata mater" would have occurred, though it doesn't seem entirely implausible.

Opinions are no doubt divided on how appropriate it would be for Betty Martin to turn out to be "beata mater".

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37 Comments »

  1. Patricia said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 7:29 am

    Nevermind Betty or the grammatical particulars – I was astounded to discover that "mihi" would be misheard for "my eye", implying that it would be pronounced /maɪˈ(h)aɪ/ and not /mi'hɪ/.

    Is that how all English people pronounce mihi, or is it an old thing?

    Gosh I hope I got that pronunciation key right, it's been ages…

  2. dr pepper said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 7:59 am

    It seems farfectched to me to derive a common expression from one single instance of a misheard phrase. I'd guess that it's an exampe of folk etymology. It reminds me of the old story that "gringo" comes from one mexican hearing one american singing "Green Grow the Lilacs", or the one about french people in the time of the Hundred Years War calling english soldiers "goddamns".

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 8:22 am

    @Patricia: According to the Wikipedia page on the Traditional English pronunciation of Latin, "In the words mihi, tibi, sibi, by an old tradition, the final i was pronounced like final e above (i.e., as if spelled mihe, tibe, sibe)."

    What vowel an 18th-century sailor might have had in "eye" is another question. And according to the legends, it might have been a continental pronunciation of Latin that was involved, in any case.

    @Dr Pepper: The "beate Martine" or "beata mater" story is surely a folk etymology. The question is just whether it's an after-the-fact story, made up to explain an odd idiom, or a story that actually played a role in the idiom's development, as in the process that turned girasole into "Jerusalem artichoke".

    My own unfounded speculation is that the Betty Martin story is probably invented — a remnant of someone's well-told joke — but that such a joke might well have played a role in spreading the usage, and perhaps was even its origin. And whatever the true historical development, English Protestant distaste for perceived Catholic saint-worship or mariolatry must be part of the history as well.

  4. Bobbie said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 8:34 am

    Other nautical words and phrases came from Latin, Spanish or Portugese and were distorted by English saiilors. Two that come to mind are for seabirds known as storm petrels or "Mother Carey's chickens.". Supposedly petrels were named for St Peter because they seem to walk on waterwhen feeding. They were also called "Mother Carey's chickens" which is a corruption of Mater Cara, or Blessed Mother (Mary).

  5. Ed said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 9:09 am

    @Patricia: /maɪˈ(h)aɪ/ would be the standard outcome of running mihi indiscriminately through the great vowel shift.

  6. Karen Myers said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 10:23 am

    Going the other way, wouldn't "mihi" rhyme nicely with the Scots pronunciation of "eye" as "e'e"? (speaking as an amateur)…

    Also, could someone point me to a respected discussion of current thinking on "gringo" and "goddams"?

  7. marie-lucie said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 11:15 am

    In the Hundred Year War, the French called the English soldiers "godons" because they were heard to say "goddamn". Considering the usual linguistic practices of soldiers, it is extremely unlikely that the English word was only heard once by a single French person, as in the tale of the British sailor and "Betty Martin". This reminds me of the tale of the Philippine father who named his newborn son "Ababis", after an American saint, as American soldiers were constantly heard calling on "San Ababis!" in stressful situations.

    "Beate Martine" in Latin would have the second word stressed on the -i-, not the -a-, so if the origin is indeed part of a Latin prayer, it is more likely that the second word was "mater".

  8. Randy Alexander said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 11:26 am

    I'm very curious about this. My mother (and others in her generation) would say "my eye!", meaning "nonsense!", which my generation turned into "my ass!". We both grew up in Cincinnati. Any others have this? Has anyone heard both from the same person?

  9. language hat said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 11:44 am

    "My eye" is very old; the first two citations in the OED are:
    1768 GOLDSM. Good-n. Man II, That's all my eye—the king only can pardon.
    1782 George Bateman II. 113 That's all my eye, and my elbow, as the saying is.

  10. Linda said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

    Where does the knitting motif "Betty Martin" fit into this. For those who don't know it, it's a four stitch, four row, repeat. When working in rounds, first and second row, K2P2, third and fourth, K.

  11. Philip Spaelti said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

    In French there is the saying "mon oeil" (my eye), which means "You're trying to pull a fast one on me. I don't believe a word you say." The phrase also has an associated gesture: touching below the eye with the tip of the index finger, and pulling down.

  12. John Cowan said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

    In David Brin's sf novel The Uplift War, the viewpoint character, a genetically modified chimpanzee with the doubly allusive name "Fiben Bolger", uses the delightful expression "My hairy Uncle Fred's scrotum". It isn't clear that this meets the Maxim of Relevance, since any chimp's uncle is going to be on the hairy side.

  13. JJM said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

    Patricia:

    As a lifelong left-footer, I have never pronounced "mihi" as anything other than "mee-ee."

  14. marie-lucie said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

    From the Coleridge quotation

    He's a heretic dog who but adds Betty Martin,

    and the other references to "all my eye" alone, it appears that "All my eye" and "Betty Martin" were originally separate, and that "Betty Martin" had a religious connotation. Therefore "my eye" cannot come from "mihi" (whatever the pronunciation), and "Beata Mater" becomes more plausible as the original of "Betty Martin". The fact that "and" appears in the whole phrase also confirms the separate origin of the two terms.

    Besides the problem of interpreting Latin phonology through English at various periods of history, the distortion could have been intentional, as with "darn" for "damn" and other attempts to disguise a profanation of words considered sacred. In addition, Catholics suffering discrimination and even persecution at the time, would have had extra incentive to disguise a Latin invocation with a similar-sounding name without religious connotations, which would not arouse suspicion. They could always say that the name "meant nothing", therefore meant "nothing". Could "all my eye" also be a deliberate distortion, perhaps of "Almighty"?

  15. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 1:30 pm

    @Randy: Yep, I've used both, and heard both from people. Certainly "my ass" is more common for my demographic, but people also use "my eye."

  16. Sili said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

    You learn something new every day – I was convinced "my eye" was a Bowdlerisation of "my arse" not the other around.

  17. Andy Jandyj@iname.com said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

    At the risk of going off topic, but tying together "eye" and the rough soldiery of godden fame, post 1982, members of the British Forces stationed in the Falkland Islands were wont to refer to the locals as Bennies, after a well-known character in a TV soap who was a little on the slow side. In retalliation the Falkland Islanders started referring to their British protectors as "Wen-Eyes", based on the common beginning to most soldiers' boastful stories: "When I was in …"

  18. marie-lucie said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

    Back to the British sailor: I believe the legend has it backwards (something that often happens).

    Entering a church where a Latin service was going on, this man (who might be standing for a number of others in the same situation) would have heard a lot more Latin than just a single phrase, instead he would have been faced with a stream of unintelligible gibberish. But among the jumble of sound he might have picked up something which reminded him of a phrase he already knew, "All my eye and Betty Martin". Otherwise, why select precisely this apparently meaningless phrase if it did not exist already? He might have perceived mostly the end of the phrase, perhaps just "Beata Mater" and retroactively filled in the beginning, or if the story circulated widely among other sailors, the phrase might have gathered extra baggage.

    I encountered a similar phenomenon some years ago when I was working as a linguist in a native community where the language was spoken mostly by old people. Most non-natives had little contact with it, except on special occasions where there were a lot of speeches by elders. I was constantly asked why some English names were so often mentioned, especially Sam Wilson and Strathcona. These were actually mishearings of native expressions meaning respectively "do your best" and "this day". Phonetically the actual native words were not that close to the English ones, but compared to the rest of the language they were close enough to seem identifiable. I think that this is what happened to the British sailor(s), who thought they recognized an already familiar English expression among a stream of Latin.

  19. D. Wilson said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 6:51 pm

    It's a fair guess that "Betty Martin" is from the old song "High Betty Martin". Some books from the 1830's mention this as a tune popular decades earlier, but one can still find words and tune in modern music books and probably on-line. I would speculate that "my eye" was elaborated to "my eye/high Betty Martin" either arbitrarily or euphemistically, based on the song title and lyrics; exact development is not clear to me however.

  20. Bryn LaFollette said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

    Does anyone know if the phrase "All my eye", of which I've only every heard "My eye!" here in the US, has a connection with the synonymous phrase "In a pig's eye!". My impression had always been the two were connected but I have no clue as to what the history of the latter's development is. The parallel phrase in French "Mon oeil!" is one I've definitely noticed, too. Does anyone know of similarly parallel phrases in other European languages?

  21. language hat said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 8:31 pm

    I have never pronounced "mihi" as anything other than "mee-ee."

    I would be surprised if anyone now alive pronounces it that way, but it was the traditional pronunciation a couple of centuries ago.

  22. language hat said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 8:31 pm

    Er, by "it" I meant MYE-HY.

  23. Robert said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 9:00 pm

    >> The letter mentioned earlier said it was “a sea phrase that Admiral Jemm frequently makes use of”, which might make a Betty Martin some long defunct bit of nautical equipment.

    It seems that the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything knows no bounds.

  24. mollymooly said,

    June 13, 2008 @ 6:08 am

    As an interjection expressing disbelief in the veracity or relevance of an earlier claim, I've heard "my foot!" much oftener than "my eye!". This to me conveys the idea of stamping one's foot, or putting one's foot down, to assert the strength of one's conviction. However, the foot doesn't seem to wore as a predicate: I've never heard "It's all my foot!"

  25. john riemann soong said,

    June 13, 2008 @ 7:40 am

    "/maɪˈ(h)aɪ/ would be the standard outcome of running mihi indiscriminately through the great vowel shift."

    It's funny because that's the first thing I thought of — whether the Great Vowel Shift was accounted for.

    As a side note, it seems that in standard pronunciation today, "Martin" and "starting" are out of place in the poem — the lines that contain them are the only lines ending in a syllable containing /ɪ/ — the rest end in a syllable containing /i/. Coleridge is quite too late for the GVS, however.

  26. John Laviolette said,

    June 13, 2008 @ 8:56 pm

    I always thought "my eye", "my foot", and "my ass" were derived from swearing, in the sense of oaths. I thought they were euphemisms for older oaths like "God's eye". Not that I 've heard that specific oath (if Maledicta is still around and hasn't decayed into uselessness, it might be useful to confirm.) But given the variety of corrupt versions of old oaths, like "zounds" or "'sdeath", maybe there *was* a "God's eye!" oath, which got changed to soften the shock.

  27. Colin S said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 8:30 am

    In Agatha Christie's novel, "One, Two, Buckle my Shoe", Chief Inspector Japp says, "…but take my word for it, these things are all my eye and Betty Martin."

    So presumably Christie was familiar with the phrase when she wrote the book in the early 1940's.

    [(myl) Right, at that point (given the history documented in the OED) it had been a standard idiom for more than 150 years. ]

  28. sandy henderson said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 7:24 am

    during the Peninsula War the portuguese troops supporting the British before going into battle would cross themselves and say a prayer in portuguese which to the British troops sounded like O my eye and Betty Martin. The Portuguese troops after advancing a short way would return to their starting place so the British troops would say Here we go again! All my eye and Betty Martin derogatorily.

    [(myl) Reference? This seems likely to be a made-up folk etymology, since the dates of the Peninsular War were 1807-1814, and (as discussed in the body of the post) the OED's first print citation is dated 1781, and refers to frequent use of this "sea phrase" by "Admiral Jemm", who must have learned it some decades earlier. ]

  29. windyframe said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

    So did the Betty Martin (Edwina Parry) who was cured of leprosy at Carville take her pseudonym from this phrase?

  30. amanda tudor-williams said,

    March 5, 2010 @ 6:14 am

    …for what it's worth, I inherited, from my grandmother, a rather fine (possibly Georgian, probably Victorian) fob seal…the cryptogram reads: all (design of an awl) my (written) eye (picture) and (&) betty (design of a woman) martin (design of a bird)…it took a while to work out what it said owing to the fact that it's not an everyday expression – as we all know!…it is interesting, however, that someone went to the expense (gold and some yellow precious or semi precious stone) to produce a seal which says….nothing! – that being the meaning of the expression………..or is it???!!!…

  31. peter smith said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 5:31 am

    Ooops;sorry about the above incomplete comment.
    What I was trying to say is that I have always thought, with no evidence beyond instinct, that "and Betty Martin" was a mangled "une betise de ma tante" (no circumflex available on this machine!).
    Does that strike a chord with anyone?

  32. P.F. Spencer said,

    April 19, 2012 @ 11:01 am

    I came across "my eye and Betty Martin" a few times in Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired 'Upstairs, Downstairs,' and 'Downtown Abbey.' Written by Margaret Powell, it was published in 1968 and re-issued this year. The "nonsense" explanation works well. And I do recall a children's song about Betty Martin ('Hey Betty Martin, tippy toe, tippy toe/ Hey Betty Martin, tiptoe fine…') so there's probably more to that reference that needs tracking down.

  33. Stephen Goranson said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 5:22 am

    The OED's earliest quotation with Betty Martin is from 1781. Here are four earlier publications.

    1763
    The poetical calendar. Containing a collection of scarce and valuable pieces of poetry: With Variety of originals and translations, by the most …
    London, MDCCLXIII. [1763]. v. 9, p. 105. A Journey to Doncaster. … By learned men it is agreed, Poets should ride the winged steed; And therefore, thus says Betty Martin, "Thou art no poet, that's most certain."

    1764
    The poetical magazine: or, The muses monthly companion. … [London] 1764 p. 140 (in Ode to Dullness p. 139-140):
    ….
    Now point, ye mongrels! point the cobweb jest,
    Spit forth your venum, drain your inkhorns dry,
    By Scandal's breath, too firm to be depress'd.
    Your praise I scorn, your censure–* oh my eye!
    BETTY MARTIN.
    * Some copies read, I defy.
    To
    The Rev. J. Langhorne, [John Langhorne (1735-1779)?]
    This.
    Frank—–

    1770
    Middlesex Journal or Chronicle of Liberty [London] January 11, 1770 – January 13, 1770; Issue 123 col. 1-2 (here 2)
    Poets Corner…To the Third Regiment of Guards……Auctioneer. My eye, Betty Martin! What have we here? The identical Snipper Snapper, that shot John Wileks in the belly. Hold up your target Betty Martin….

    1779
    Public Advertiser [London] Tuesday, September 21, 1779; Issue 14026. col. 2
    To the Printer of the Public Advertiser
    This grand Manoeuvre of De Sartin
    Is all my Eye*, now, Mrs. Martin
    And till the Fleets have met and fought,
    We're making much ado of Nought.
    ….
    * "My Eye, Betty Martin," a common Phrase for Things that come to nought.

  34. David Mitchell said,

    November 19, 2012 @ 5:01 pm

    The etymologists don't give enough credence to the British mangIing of what they hear. For example, British upper classes who traveled Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries used to go to places like Leghorn (Livorno). Any sound in a foreign tongue could be converted into something familiar. There's a joke about the guy who went into a Catholic Church service and came out to tell his friend that this fella in fancy dress stood up and chanted "I bet I can beat you at dominoes" to which the congregation replied "We bet we can beat you at dominoes" . Then they passed round a bucket to collect the bets!
    To extract "all my eye and Betty Martin" from the Latin phrase "Ora mihi, O Beate Martine" is an easy transition from one or two familiar sounds.

  35. Pattie said,

    November 1, 2013 @ 11:33 am

    Mihi would quite readily translate to 'me eye' in the English vernacular, especially the cockney sounds, since cockney's often drop the 'h' in a word
    even today,.

  36. wendy maddy said,

    January 26, 2014 @ 7:14 am

    in agatha christie's mystery novels, she sometimes uses that phrase, "all my eye and Betty Martin." in one story, a man who left a fortune in postage stamps on envelopes because he mistrusted the banks and wanted to fool potential thieves said on his deathbed to his niece and nephew, who were his heirs, "all my eye and Betty Martin", chuckled, put his finger to his eye and pulled it down at the outside corner, and died. later on, they found in a secret hidden drawer of his desk, love letters written to this lifelong bachelor posted from all over the world, but the envelopes proved to be much older than the letters, all of which were signed, Betty Martin. so it was a misdirection to fool burglars. he gave his heirs the hint that it was all a crock and misdirection by saying what he said. meaning things are not always what they seem to be. i am intrigued that there are English songs and poems about Betty Martin and also a knitting instruction named Betty Martin, knit two, purl two, two rows, then knit four for two rows, then repeat. knit and purl mean to go forward then backward then forward again and backward again, then go forward two rows and then repeat the whole pattern of four rows. confusion and misdirection implied?

  37. broglet said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 7:05 am

    I wouldn't trust Pattie or anyone else who thought that the plural of cockney was cockney's

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