Q From Jon S of Mississippi: By any chance do you know the origin of the American expression, So help me Hannah? It used to be heard more often in days gone by, and people today may have never heard of it, but it’s an old saying that I cannot find the origin of.
A I can’t provide a definite origin but I can give some pointers.
Hannah, as a personal name, sometimes with the spelling pronunciation “Hanner”, has been used in the US in various colloquial sayings since at least the 1870s. They include that’s what’s the matter with Hannah, indicating emphatic agreement, of which John Farmer wrote disparagingly in his Americanisms of 1889, “A street catch-phrase with no especial meaning. For a time it rounded off every statement of fact or expression of opinion amongst the vulgar.” Another, since Hannah died, was a reference to the passage of time.
The earliest on record is he doesn’t amount to Hannah Cook, later often abbreviated to he doesn’t amount to Hannah and also appearing as not worth a Hannah Cook.
Mr. Sweeney rose again to explain the mysteries of printing ballots the evening before election, and added that the acceptance or rejection of the investigating Committee’s report “didn’t amount to Hannah Cook,” because it made no recommendations.
Boston Daily Globe, 9 Sep. 1875.
This early appearance in a Boston newspaper supports the general opinion that it’s of New England origin. John Gould suggested in his Maine Lingo of 1975 that it derived from seafaring: “A man who signed on as a hand or cook didn’t have status as one or the other and could be worked in the galley or before the mast as the captain wished. The hand or cook was nondescript, got smaller wages, and became the Hannah Cook of the adage.” The story sounds too much like folk etymology to be readily swallowed.
So help me Hannah is a mildly euphemistic form of the oath so help me God, which starts to appear in print in the early twentieth century. Hannah here seems likely to have been borrowed from one or other of the earlier expressions. It became widely used in the 1920s and 1930s.
“By hell, Chief,” he drawled, drawing a huge clasp-knife from his
pocket, “I been grazin’ on this here Alasky range nigh on to twenty
yars, and so help me Hannah, I never did find a place so wild or a
bunch o’ hombres so tough but what sooner or later all hands starts
a-singin’ o’ the female sect.”
Where the Sun Swings North, by Barrett Willoughby, 1922.
After the Second World War, the American firm Hannah Laboratories produced a salve with the name So help me Hannah. Some people have pointed to this as the origin of the expression, though the firm was, of course, merely exploiting a phrase that had long since become part of the common language.