The phrase all my eye and Betty Martin was an expression of disbelief used to mean nonsense. It has fallen out of usage, but has been maintained in a sort of artificial life by persistent conjectures about its origin.
This phrase seems to date back to the second half of the 18th century. Stephen Goranson (Duke University Libraries – Durham, North Carolina) has discovered early instances from 1763 onwards; for example, the Public Advertiser (London) of 21st September 1779 had:
To the Printer of the Public Advertiser
This grand Manoeuvre of De Sartin
Is all my Eye*, now, Mrs. Martin
And till the Fleets have met and fought,
We’re making much ado of Nought.
* “My Eye, Betty Martin,” a common Phrase for Things that come to nought.
One of the first known users of the phrase stated that it was sailors’ slang; in a letter dated 16th October 1781, Samuel Crisp (1707-83) asked his sister, who, like him, was infirm, to visit him:
Seriously, I do firmly believe, if you will come up hither early in the Spring (and surely You must be disabled with a Vengeance if you cannot bear being carried into, and in, a Post Chaise) the Journey, Change of Air, &c., will be of infinite service to You; for Physic, to old, crazy Frames, like ours, is all my eye and Betty Martin—(a sea phrase that Admiral Jemm frequently makes use of).
The phrase was also described as sailors’ slang in this paragraph is from The Kentish Gazette (Canterbury, Kent) of 25th April 1786:
A great deal of advice has been thrown away upon a certain young gentleman in the navy line—when spoken to very seriously on the subject of love, his answer was in the true quarter deck slang, “Tis all my eye Betty Martin.”
The English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91) recorded a variant in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1st edition – London, 1785):
Betty Martin, that’s my eye betty martin, an answer to any one that attempts to impose or humbug.
The English poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) punned on the phrase when he burlesqued the idealism of the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte in The categorical imperative, or the annunciation of the new Teutonic God ΕΓΩΕΝΚΑΙΠΑΝ: a dithyrambic Ode, by Querkopf Von Klubstick, Grammarian, and Subrector in Gymnasio (1817):
All souls and all bodies are I itself I!
All I itself I!
(Fools! a truce with this starting!)
All my I! all my I!
He’s a heretic dog who but adds Betty Martin!
A variant with Peggy has existed; the earliest instance that I have found is from an advertisement in The Leeds Intelligencer (Leeds, Yorkshire) of 11th July 1803, which mentioned a new comic song titled My Eye and Peggy Martin.
The phrase is a mere fanciful extension of all my eye, used for example in 1763 in the parody of an opera libretto, titled Fitz-Giggo: A New English Uproar:
Air: Forbear to fan this raging flame
Which Fitzgig did create;
Nor let your rage supplant your shame,
To fix theatric fate.
Then cease to tear the boxes down,
And terrify each heart […].
Recitativo: Begin the dust! and let the benches fly!
This treatment, gentlemen, is all my eye.
(In French, mon œil! has the same meaning as my eye!; it seems to have arisen independently.)
Similarly, the phrase to play hell and Tommy, meaning to behave wildly, to cause trouble, is a fanciful extension of to play hell. In An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (London, 1921), the British philologist Ernest Weekley (1865-1954) remarked:
My eye and Betty Martin. The origin of the phrase is unknown and the identity of the lady is as vague as that of Tommy in like hell and Tommy.
The English playwright John Poole* (1786-1872) coined all my eye and Tommy in Hamlet Travestie: in three acts. With annotations by Dr. Johnson and Geo. Steevens, Esq. and other commentators (London, 1810):
– Queen Gertrude: Why seems there such a mighty fuss with thee?
– Hamlet: Talk not to me of seems—when husbands die,
’Twere well if some folks seem’d the same as I.
But I have that within, you can’t take from me—
As for black clothes,—that’s all my eye and Tommy.
Poole parodied both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the manner in which Samuel Johnson (1709-84), George Steevens (1736-1800) and other commentators edited the Shakespearean texts. He invented the variant of all my eye and Betty Martin in order to write one of the annotations which, as he explained, imitated “the general style, manner, and character of the commentators” and produced “the ludicrous by the application of the pomp and affectation of critical sagacity and of controversial asperity, to subjects light, triﬂing, and insigniﬁcant”. One of his fake annotations consisted in making Steevens write that Tommy was substituted for Betty Martin, and that the form ’Tis all my eye and Betty Martin had been used in the same sense in an undated black-letter volume titled the Ryghte Tragycall Hystorie of Master Thomas Thumbe—a volume which, naturally, has never existed.
The pattern for what has become one of the most popular explanations of the phrase was set as early as 1816. In its May issue, The New Monthly Magazine and Universal Register (London) published the following in its column Oedipius Jocularis: or, illustrations of remarkable proverbs, obscure sayings, and peculiar customs:
’Tis all my eye Betty Martin. Of these strange and apparently unmeaning words the following appears to be a correct definition. A man going once into a church or chapel of the Romish persuasion on St. Martin’s day, heard the Latin Litany chaunted [sic], when the words “Mihi Beate Martin,” occurred so often, that upon being asked how he liked the service, he replied it was nothing but nonsense or something worse, as from beginning to end “it was all my eye Betty Martin.”
No trace of this prayer has ever been found in the Roman Catholic liturgy. This explanation and others stemming from it are later rationalisations.
In The Sweepings of my Study (Edinburgh. 1824), the English author and publisher Richard Phillips (1767-1840) wrote:
’Tis all my eye and Betty Martin.
Whether this queer saying did or did not originate with what I am going to relate, and which happened in the year 1781, the story appears to me to be worth telling.
Betty Martin, a mantua-maker of a tall, spare figure, and of an immeasurable stride, resided in a village in Kent. For a considerable time she played the ghost very successfully, to the great terror of the natives, but being at length detected, it became proverbial there, when what was asserted did not bear the semblance of truth, or when an attempt was made, according to the vulgar phrase, to put a sham on any one, to say “’Tis all my eye and Betty Martin.”
According to the English actor Charles Lee Lewes (1740-1803) in his Memoirs (London, 1805), there was in the latter part of the 18th century an actress named Grace, who induced a Christopher Martin to marry her. She became notorious as Betty Martin and favourite expressions of hers were my eye and all my eye:
This female was the original Miss Jenny in the Provok’d Husband, or a Journey to London. Her name at that time was Grace. […]
One gallant, a young gentleman of the name of Martin, and of a reputable family and fortune in the county of Meath, in Ireland, she had so far entangled by her arts and charms, that, in defiance of family pride and more advantageous matrimonial expectancies, he proposed to marry her. Shrewdly suspecting that no such person as Mr. Grace would ever appear to claim her, the lovely Elizabeth Grace soon after became Betty Martin; and this was the lady to whom the public are so much indebted for the cant and common expression of “my eye” to Betty Martin. […]
Betty […] very calmly and deliberately desired him to find some other mode of subsistence, than that of eating her out of house and home. “For, may I never sleep more,” continued the sordidly selfish baggage, “if you shall ever eat so much as a crust at my table again: so, my fine man of fortune, begone, and impose upon some other silly, innocent, unsuspecting creature, like myself, if you can; and ill-fate attend her who would prosecute you for having two wives. Ha! hah! Mr. gentleman, so I was to be made your property, and maintain you in idleness, was I? O, my eye for that, my dear. There, sir,—there’s the door the carpenter made—Christopher Martin, esq. trouble me no more.” […]
Poor Betty’s heroic frenzy was, (to use her own pathetic phrase), in this instance, “all my eye.”