Q From Muddy, near Paris, France: I used the phrase, Oh, my stars and garters! today, apparently for the first time in front of my English husband (I’m American) and he thought it was hilarious. Can you tell me anything about its origin?
A It’s a fascinating expression, with a long history. To give you the background, perhaps I should start with its core, the phrase stars and garters. You may be surprised to hear that this refers collectively to honours and awards.
We have some weird ones in the UK, not least those, like OBE and MBE, that mark a person’s achievements by raising them to a status in an empire we no longer possess. Perhaps the oddest-sounding is the Order of the Garter, the highest order of English knighthood, which was founded by Edward III around 1344. Since most of the honours of knighthood and the like come with a medal in the shape of a star, the phrase stars and garters appeared in the early eighteenth century as a collective reference to all these medals, honours and decorations and — by a figurative extension — to the group of people that hold them. The earliest example of this metaphoric sense is in Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, around 1712: “While Peers, and Dukes, and all their sweeping train, And Garters, Stars, and Coronets appear”. More than a century later, Charles Dickens used it in Bleak House (1853): “His remote impressions of the robes and coronets, the stars and garters, that sparkle through the surface-dust of Mr. Tulkinghorn’s chambers”, as did Anthony Trollope 20 years later still, in Phineas Redux: “Though the country were ruined, the party should be supported. Hitherto the party had been supported, and had latterly enjoyed almost its share of stars and Garters”. Star and Garter is also the name of many British pubs.
Your expression appeared at the beginning of the nineteenth century as a humorous expression of astonishment. There’s no evidence I can find that directly links the two, but it’s hardly possible that the exclamation is other than a jocular conflation of stars and garters with older exclamations such as thank your lucky stars! and my stars! A nice example is in The Book of Snobs by William Makepeace Thackeray, published in 1848: “And, O stars and garters! how she would start if she heard that she — she, as solemn as Minerva — she, as chaste as Diana (without that heathen goddess’s unladylike propensity for field-sports) — that she too was a Snob!” Edward Bulwer-Lytton had put it in the mouth of a character in his novel Night and Morning in 1841: “The man, after satisfying himself that his time was not yet come, was turning back to the fire, when a head popped itself out of the window, and a voice cried, ‘Stars and garters! Will — so that’s you!’ ”.