Sound and vision blog

01 November 2013

Heavens to Betsy it's Arkansas, West Sussex!

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Sociolinguistics writes:

What does a West Sussex baking enthusiast have in common with a teacher from Arkansas? Well, in the space of two days I heard both speakers utter the extraordinary phrase Heavens to Betsy. Fans of The Great British Bake Off will have enjoyed last week's return to the class of 2012 for their own reasons, but the highlight for me occurred during the review of last season's biscuit challenge, when a rather flustered Cathryn was driven to cry:

Heavens to Betsy what am I doing?

Only the previous day while auditing the British Library's VoiceBank I'd come across the following recording made by a contributor from Arkansas:

my favourite phrase is Heavens to Betsy and I use that when I am frustrated or if I'm surprised by something so for example if a student has not done his homework I would say 'Heavens to Betsy my goodness child why didn't you do what I ask you to do' (BL Shelfmark C1442/00881)

What a splendid phrase. The Partridge New Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English confirms a definition very much along the lines of our teacher from Arkansas and suggests it originated in the USA in the 1940s. The Oxford English Dictionary cites evidence from even earlier (1857), but states it is of 'unknown' etymology, although Michael Quinion provides some interesting suggestions about its distribution on his World Wide Words website.

Etymology aside, the expression is clearly alive and well in West Sussex and Arkansas and one of a number of words and phrases contributed to the WordBank by visitors to the Library's Evolving English exhibition in 2010/11. Visitors were encouraged to submit words they felt were special in their variety of English and we've now catalogued over 2,000 of the 15,000 contributions, which offer some fascinating insights into 21st century dialect, slang and idiolectal usage. A selection of recordings feature in this year's Sound Edit, a competition in which young filmmakers are invited to create a short film inspired by the VoiceBank with the winning entry to be screened at the Library's 2014 Spring Festival. Heavens to Betsy I can't wait!

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