I’ve always been partial to “Gracious Snakes,” myself.
Dear Word Detective: I grew up in Mississippi hearing my mother say, usually in exasperation with me, “Oh my stars and garters!” I moved to Vermont years ago and forgot this expression, which had always mystified me. Last month, I phoned someone up here to tender profuse apologies for some minor discourtesy. The response was, “Oh my stars and garters, Shelby. Don’t be silly.” That’s the way it was always used — as a more colorful version of “Oh, for pity’s sake!” Whence this phrase, please? — Remystified, Shelby Grantham.
It’s funny how things like that pop up after all those years, isn’t it? I remember as a child encountering the phrase “I swan” in books and movies (mostly set in the South, as I recall). I gathered that it was an antiquated expression of surprise, but since no one I knew in Connecticut used the expression, I filed it away under “Weird things grownups say that you don’t have to understand.” It was only many years later, when I heard my mother-in-law in Ohio say “I swan” in nearly every conversation (she was perpetually appalled by modern life), that I finally got around to looking it up. “I swan” turns out to be simply the somewhat slurred northern English dialect pronunciation of “I shall warrant” in the sense of “I declare” or “I swear.”
“Oh my stars and garters” serves much the same purpose as “I swan” as an expression of surprise, but adds a jocular twist (“and garters”) to signal that it’s not to be taken too seriously. “My stars!” (no garters) has been an expression of mild astonishment since the late 16th century, rooted in a time when astrology was taken very seriously and certain stars were thought to rule one’s fate.
I had initially assumed that the “and garters” part of the phrase was purely a joking extension of “my stars,” chosen for the “stars/garters” rhyme and perhaps for the slightly risque overtones of “garter.” But Michael Quinion of World Wide Words (www.worldwidewords.org) points out that “stars and garters” has a history all its own in Britain. Knighthoods and such honors usually come with star-shaped medals, and the Order of the Garter is the highest rank of knighthood. Thus “stars and garters” has been slang shorthand in Britain since the early 18th century for all the trappings of knighthood (“He … Despised the fools with stars and garters, So often seen caressing Chartres,” Jonathan Swift, 1731).
At some point, probably early in the 19th century, someone familiar with both the idiom “stars and garters” and the exclamation “Oh my stars!” fused the two, producing “Oh my stars and garters,” which must have struck quite a few people as enormously silly and clever, which it was. So what we have in “Oh my stars and garters” is, essentially, a 200-year old one-liner.