For Pete’s sake! For the love of Mike! Heaven’s to Betsy! Who are these people?
Pete = Saint Peter
Mike = the archangel Michael (but may at the same time mean an Irishman)
Betsy =no one knows for sure, but there are interesting theories (see below)
And these people are “stand-ins” for divine names.
These expressions are all examples of “minced oaths” in which some other word or name is substituted for “God”, “Christ” or “Jesus”, in order to soften the expression (to avoid swearing).
When other NAMES are substituted they are generally names of other important religious figures, or names that SOUND something like the original (e.g., “Jimminy Cricket” for “Jesus Christ”). A similar practice is substituting “Heck” for “Hell”, “Dang” for “Damn”, “Deuce” for “Devil”, etc.
For these three cases:
1) “Pete” is for Saint Peter (Jesus’ disciple, leader in the early church, considered by Catholics to be the first pope). “For Pete’s sake” (sometimes transformed to “For pity’s sake”, substitutes for “For God’s sake” or “For Christ’s sake”)
2) “Mike” is for the archangel Michael (I think this form originated with or played off of the nickname “Mike/Mick” for an Irishman.)
3) Betsy ???
“Heavens to Betsy” (an American expression) is a tough one —
“Heavens!” itself is a common substitute for “God” for obvious reasons (Such a practice is already found among Jews in the time of Christ.- -to avoid overusing or misusingGod’s name. Thus Matthew’s gospel says “kingdom of heaven” where the other gospels have “kingdom of God”.) Also, “GOOD” in “Good heavens” (cf “Good grief”, etc) is in place of “God” – and the whole is a substitute for “God in heaven”.
But why BETSY?! The form has been found in print as early as 1892 (though it may have been spoken long before then). But unfortunately, no one has found clear evidence of its origins. There is the “Betsy Ross” theory, though if offers no explanation of why her name should be used in place of a divine or saint’s name** — it doesn’t even sound like one.
Some have suggested Queen Elizabeth. She was never referred to by this nickname, but more than that the expression seems to be completely AMERICAN, not British, and apparetnly postdates the queen by a few centuries!
**there is Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, but her name seems never to be used in this way, much less in the form of “Betsy”
Others have suggested the name comes from the nickname for a frontiersman’s rifle – “(Old) Betsy” , based on Davy Crockett use of “Betsy” for his favorite and “Old Betsy”, another rifle given to him. Crockett was fighting with Betsy when he died at the Alamo.
[My own question — Did Crockett take this name from the “Brown Bess” musket–a renowned weapon, widely used from the early 18th to early 19th centuries?
Some dismiss this as unsubtantiated — http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-hea1.htm . But since we have no evidence for any OTHER option… maybe! It also might fit with the practice of swearing by someone or something near and dear to oneself.
4) (though you didn’t ask this, someone mentioned it) “Murgatroyd” in the similar expression “Heavens to Murgatroyd”
This one is best known as a line of the 1950s cartoon lion Snagglepuss, but goes back from there to a 1944 movie line given to Bert Lahr (who played the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 “Wizard of Oz” — Snagglepuss was a take off on him and this character), and perhaps earlier.
Why MURGATROYD? I think the most likely explanation is that the name was taken from the Gilbert and Sullivan 1887 comic opera “Ruddigore” (or “The Witch’s Curse”) in witch the whole line of the Murgatroyd family is laboring under a curse (finally resolved by a legal finesse, in typical Gilbertian style).
People generally respond very strongly and negatively to them, shunning those who are alive, and fearful of those of the family who appear as GHOSTS. “Heavens to Murgatroyd” as a cry of surprise would fit in with this. It might even express the horror and agony of one of the Murgatroyds or others at the terms of the curse.
Here are links to the plot summary and script of the opera:
Now here’s one for you…My grandmother says “Lord Levi!”
And my mother is fond of (making fun of her) “Jesus in Blue Jeans!!”
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I did figure out who W.C. Fields was referring to when he exclaimed “Godfrey Daniel!”
none of these people exist, they’re random names we put in to avoid swearing…
like “Ah! Shi…..p”
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