By George, who were Betsy, Bob and Fanny Adams?
Have you ever come across an expression that you have not encountered 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 horrific goings-on. To my astonishment the subtitle translated the German ejaculation of despair with an understated, rather comical “heavens to Betsy.” For those not familiar with the expression, it is a mild exclamation of surprise or shock, and thus the translation hardly seemed adequate to describe the situation.
My interest aroused, I found the origin of this phrase is shrouded in mystery. It represents one of the euphemistic non-curses that was prevalent more than fifty years ago and whose usage has all but vanished. The OED’s first citation of the phrase is in 1857 from Frederick W. Saunders’ short story Serenade 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 is “completely unsolvable.”
On the other hand, we do have a leading candidate for the subject of the expression “Bob’s your uncle” 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 (to become Prime Minister in 1902) was appointed as 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 then anything is possible.
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 some etymologists see this as the expression’s origin.
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 well out of office.
So it would appear that there exists reasonable doubt about the true identity of our aforementioned Betsy and Bob. But what about the George found in the mild exclamation “By George!” According to Robert Hendrickson in Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, this George is none other than Saint George who has been the patron saint of England since the institution of the Order of the Garter in 1348. Little, however, is known about this canonized George. It has been speculated that he was a soldier in the Roman army who was martyred for his Christian faith in Asia Minor. This theory, however, is specious. Most etymologists believe that George represents a substitute for God and follows the old Hebraic and English traditions of avoiding the use of sacred words such as God or Jesus by using a name with the same initial letter. So in the case of God, George represents one of the many G substitutes for God, such as golly, gosh or Godfrey.
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.
In the expression “Sweet Fanny Adams” we actually have detailed knowledge about the subject. While this expression is very popular in Britain and Australia, it is not widely known in North America and I am only aware of it because it is one of my British-born partner Carol’s favourite expressions. 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 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 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 in 1889, a dictionary of slang defines Fanny Adams as “navy, tinned mutton.” Eventually, the phrase “Sweet Fanny Adams” became a substitute for the aforementioned expression “sweet F*** all,” often rendered initially as s.f.a given that both expressions sport the same initials.
So whether you’re a known or unknown Bob, George, or Fanny you may be immortalized in an expression, such is the egalitarian nature of the English language.
Richler’s book Wordplay:Arranged and Deranged Wit was published in May 2016. It is available in fine bookstores and on Amazon.