What Is The Origin Of (252)?…

Believe you me

This phrase has always mystified as it seems to be out of kilter with the normal rules of grammar. It is used to emphasise a piece of information or a statement of opinion, showing the speaker’s passionate belief in its veracity. The normal English sentence construction follows the pattern of subject followed by verb followed by object. It is second nature to us but here we have a verb followed by the subject followed by the object.

The key to understanding this formulation is to realise that believe is what grammarians call an imperative, a command to do something. If we recognise that then we can find a plethora of examples of what seems to be a distorted ordering of words . The Bard of Stratford was no stranger to this stylistic trick. In Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 4, Lord Capulet says, “and bid her, mark you me, on Wednesday next.” Phebe in As You Like It (Act 5, Scene 2) says, “if this be so, why blame you me to love you?” And we cannot overlook the wonderful line from Hamlet that Shakespeare gives to Rosencrantz in Act 4, Scene 2 and which I always look forward to with eager anticipation; “take you me for a sponge, my lord?”    

Of course, you could argue that it was the constraints of the metres with which Shakespeare was working that forced him into such examples of grammatical gymnastics and whilst there may be some truth in that, believe you me, you need to consider the King James’ Bible of 1611. Recognised as representing one of the high points of English literature and freed from the constraints of metre, it too has this formulation for the imperative. In Matthew 14:16 we find, “they need not depart; give ye them to eat”.

The curious thing about our phrase is that it did not appear in print until October 1808 and then on the other side of the pond, the Eye, a Philadelphia magazine. It noted, “now this was wrong, believe you me”. Almost seventy years later, in July 1877, the Catholic World noted “we’ve not come to the worst yet, believe you me”. It was not until the twentieth century that the phrase became really established, long after this formulation of the imperative had died out in other phrases. In the eighteenth-century writers used other phrases where ours may have been used, such as “would you believe it?” (Tobias Smollett in his 1749 translation of Gil Blas) and “believe it or not, as you chuse” (William Cowper in a letter dating to June 1792). It is as if it was not known or available to them.   

Why would that be if the grammatical formulation was commonplace in earlier times and why did it pop up first in America? The answer may lie with the Irish immigrants. A trait amongst older people in Belfast when speaking English was to put a you after an imperative as in “go you away” or “sit you down” and to interject a you between the verb and object, as in “put you it away”. Believe you me was a commonplace idiom there.

It may be the Irish immigrants brought this linguistic oddity over to America with them, a hangover surely of the grammatical formulation that was prevalent in Tudor and Stuart English.   Nina Wilcox Putnam wrote a book in 1919 entitled Believe You Me!, a comic novel which found some popularity at the time and used the language of the characters who graced its pages. Its popularity may have brought the phrase to a wider audience, although my guess is that it was already in use in everyday speech. It is rather like a platypus, a phrase of ancient formulation stranded in a modern world.

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