Origins of words and phrases are a point of interest for me, leading me to stumble across the surprising origins of “sweet FA”.
Originating from the slang “fanny adams”, meaning mutton, stew or anything worthless, used by British seamen in 1869.
Current use is largely “sweet fuck all” and the meaning remains the same – nothing, worthless.
Fanny Adams was very much a real little girl living in Alton, Hampshire in 1867.
Fanny was only 8 years old on the 24th of August, 1867 when her mother gave her permission to go up to Tanhouse Lane with her friend (Minnie) and younger sister (Elizabeth).
There they met a 29-year-old clerk, who offered Minnie and Elizabeth three halfpence to spend, while offering Fanny a halfpenny if she would accompany him a couple of miles north of Alton, towards Shalden. Fanny accepted the halfpenny but initially refused to accompany the man, who then picked her up and carried her into a nearby field, out of sight of Minnie and Elizabeth.
By 5:00PM, Minnie and Elizabeth had returned home and were questioned by a neighbour regarding Fanny’s whereabouts. Both the neighbour and Fanny’s mother went to Tanhouse Lane. They met the clerk, but after questioning him and finding him to be respectable, they believed his story of giving the girls some sweets and that was all.
By 7:00PM, Fanny was still missing. More neighbours joined the search. They found Fanny’s violently mutilated body in the field.
. Her head and legs had been severed and her eyes removed. Her eyes had been thrown into the River Wey. Her torso was dismembered and the entire contents of her chest and pelvis had been torn out and scattered across the hop field, with some internal organs found further slashed or mutilated.
The police arrested the clerk – Frederick Baker – that very evening. Witnesses and colleagues placed his whereabouts in the area, not returning to the office until 3:00PM. His work colleague reported that while drinking, Baker had mentioned leaving town. The colleague questioned the difficulty he might face getting another job, to which Baker replied: “I could go as a butcher”.
On the 26th of August, Baker’s diary entry from the 24th was discovered. It read:
24th August, Saturday – killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.
Despite Baker’s protests of innocence and his defence arguing insanity and claiming the diary entry was not a confession, he was found guilty by the jury in just 15 minutes.
Baker was executed on Christmas Eve of 1867.
Fanny’s headstone reads:
Sacred to the memory of Fanny Adams aged 8 years and 4 months who was cruelly murdered on Saturday August 24th 1867.
Fear not them which kill the body but are not able to kill the soul but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell. Matthew 10 v 28.
The phrase “Sweet Fanny Adams” didn’t come in to use until 2 years later, in 1869.
New rations of tinned mutton were introduced to British seamen at this time. The introduction left the seamen unimpressed, leading them to suggest the tins might contain the grisly remains of Fanny Adams.
“Fanny Adams” (or sweet F.A.) soon became slang for mutton, stew and eventually anything considered worthless. In 1889, the phrase was recorded as:
“Fanny Adams (naval), tinned mutton”
It’s unclear when Fanny Adams evolved to “fuck all”, although stating a correct date is difficult to pinpoint thanks to the politeness of written record until the 20th century.
Walter Downing, an Australian soldier who fought in Europe in the First World War, wrote an glossary of WWI soldier’s slang called Digger Dialects in 1919. He is the first to record the link between F.A. (meaning ‘fuck all’) and Fanny Adams:
“F.A., ‘Fanny Adams’, or ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’ – nothing; vacuity.”