My old friend Chris, a veteran Aussie newspaperman, sometimes used an expression that was new to me but familiar to generations of British sailors, “All my eye and Betty Martin,” meaning something that’s complete nonsense. And, as it happened, we were colleagues at a workplace where he had (too) much occasion to use it.
When I asked him where the expression came from, he was uncharacteristically vague. Perhaps something about the navy, he’d half-heartedly suggested. Was Betty Martin some actress who’d captured sailors’ fancy, maybe like a British version of Betty Grable? After more than a few stories, most of which I believed to be all my eye and Betty Martin (and I think you know what I’m talking about here), I realized I’d have to find out for myself.
As it turns out, all my eye and Betty Martin has something of a cult following among linguistic historians.
The expression appears in a Coleridge poem from 1851:
“All my I! all my I!
He’s a heretic dog who but adds Betty Martin!”
Linguists cite this as evidence it was already in usage as popular slang by 1851. Indeed, it appears in 1781 edition of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary, of course), referring to it as “a sea phrase Admiral Jemm [actually, Royal Navy admiral James Burney] frequently makes use of.”
In his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898), E. Cobham Brewer tells this story, which connects the Royal Navy to the expression:
“[A] Jack Tar [British sailor] went into a foreign church, where he heard someone uttering these words—Ah! mihi, bea’te Martine (Ah! Grant me, Blessed Martin.). On giving an account of his adventure, [the sailor] said he could not make much out of it, but it seemed to him very like “All my eye and Betty Martin.”
Sounds plausible enough to me because, let’s face it, mangling other tongues is part of what British sailors traditionally do in foreign lands, is it not?
There is a Latin prayer, Ora pro mihi, beate Martine (“Pray for me, blessed Martin.”), which might refer to St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of innkeepers and reformed drunkards. Very appropriate for old salts of any nation.
Taking this walk through the history of expressions just a bit further, some have suggested that Betty Martin doesn’t come from beate Martine at all but, rather, beata mater, Blessed Mother. In other words, the prayer the old sailor misheard as an entreaty to the patron saint of reformed drunks may have been the request for the blessing of the Virgin Mary.
And why that misunderstanding resulted in an expression for nonsense that has lasted over the seas and centuries, I cannot even begin to guess.