All my eye and Betty Martin


Dear Word Detective: I was reading “Murther and Walking Spirits” by Robertson Davies recently, and came across the phrase “All my eye and Betty Martin” (“Of course many of the grievances are all my eye and Betty Martin”). The narrator notes that the saying is British and a “soldier’s phrase.” I have a vague memory of hearing the phrase before, used to mean “Hogwash!” or “Nonsense!” Now I’m wondering where it came from. Is it from World War II? Was Betty Martin a movie star? Please help me out here. — Jay Baker.

Hey, me too. I mean the part about having heard (and been mystified by) the phrase before, not the Robertson Davies part, whom I’ve never read. That sounds like a fairly odd book, by the way. Perhaps I’ll give it a shot.

I said that I had been mystified by “All my eye and Betty Martin,” and I still am, but I’m far from alone. Etymologists are flummoxed by the phrase, its origins, and whatever logic it may be said to possess. Michael Quinion of, who has energetically investigated the saying, calls it “among the most puzzling phrases in the language.”

To begin with what we do know, “All my eye and Betty Martin” is definitely not a 1940s creation; the first occurrence in print found so far is from 1781, and the citation (in which it is explained as “a sea [sailors’] phrase”) indicates that it was well-known by that time. “All my eye and Betty Martin” is pretty clearly an elaboration on the somewhat older retort “All my eye!”, also meaning “nonsense” or the like.  Apparently the original logic of “my eye” was that the nonsensical thing  exists only in the “eye,” or mind, of the speaker and anyone else gullible enough to take the statement seriously. It’s essentially the same as saying “You wish!” “My eye” is also used alone as an emphatic denial (“‘How about Bigelow’s Mill … that’s a factory.’ ‘Factory my eye.'” William Faulkner, 1929). Other body parts (arm, elbow, leg, etc.) have been substituted for the eye at times. Popular equivalents  of “my eye” at the moment include “my foot” (“Hairless corgi my foot! That’s a pig.”) and “my ass” (“Strike, my ass! That ump is an idiot.”).

There are a number of stories that purport to explain “All my eye and Betty Martin” by reference to a supposed historical Betty Martin who inspired the phrase. There’s Betty Martin, “a gypsy woman in Shrewsbury,” who is said to have punched a constable in the eye. Another (presumably different) Betty Martin from Kent supposedly made a practice of dressing up like a ghost to scare her neighbors, and left town when her hobby was discovered, making her name a byword for “fraud.” But such stories have the ring of post-facto invention.

More intriguing is the most famous explanation, which ties “All my eye and Betty Martin” to a Latin prayer which supposedly began “Ora pro mihi, beate Martine” (commonly translated as “Pray for me, blessed Martin”), addressed to Saint Martin, patron saint of drunkards and tavern-keepers. If one were very sloppy in one’s Latin pronunciation (and perhaps drunk), that might sound vaguely like “All my eye and Betty Martin.” Unfortunately, no such prayer has ever been officially recognized by the Catholic Church, and the form of the Latin isn’t quite right anyway. But Michael Quinion notes that there may still be something to this theory, explaining “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.”

It’s also been suggested that the prayer in question was actually “O mihi Brito Martis” (“O bring help to me Brito Martis”), and that the supplication was not to St. Martin, but to a certain goddess of Crete.

Complicating all of this still further is the fact that such non-religious forms of the phrase as “All my eye and elbow” have also been knocking around for the past few centuries. So Saint Martin may have mutated into Betty Martin, or Betty might have been a famous liar or simply someone’s rowdy neighbor. At this point all we have are a few tantalizing hints and, of course, a colorful phrase to use when a simple “Hogwash!” doesn’t quite cut it.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page