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".