Sweet Fanny Adams
What's the meaning of the phrase 'Sweet Fanny Adams'?
What's the origin of the phrase 'Sweet Fanny Adams'?
The eight-year-old Fanny Adams was murdered in Alton, England in August 1867 by Frederick Baker, a 24-year-old solicitor's clerk. Her dismembered body was found in a field near the town. She was buried in Alton cemetery. The inscription on the headstone indicates the strength of feeling against the murderer:
Sacred to the memory of Fanny Adams aged 8 years and 4 months who was cruelly murdered August 24th, 1867.
Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul but rather fear Him who is able to kill both body and soul in hell. Matthew 10:28.
This stone was erected by voluntary subscription."
The case was the source of enormous public concern and newspaper reports of the time concentrated on the youth and innocence of the victim. Everyone living in England at the time would have known the name of 'sweet' Fanny Adams. With typical grisly humour, sailors in the British Royal Navy came to use the expression to refer to unpleasant meat rations they were often served - likening them to the dead girl's remains. Barrère and Leland recorded this usage in their A dictionary of slang, jargon and cant, 1889:
"Fanny Adams (naval), tinned mutton."
It wasn't until later that 'sweet Fanny Adams' came to mean 'nothing'. The term 'f*** all' has long been with us with that meaning, although how long isn't clear as politeness caused it not to be recorded in print until the 20th century. It surely dates back to at least the early 19th century. The coincidence of Fanny Adams' initials caused F.A. or 'Fanny Adams' to be used as that euphemism.
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. and Fanny Adams:
"F.A., 'Fanny Adams', or 'Sweet Fanny Adams' - nothing; vacuity."