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Looking through the dictionary, I chanced upon an idiom which attracted my attention: "Queen Anne is dead!"

The dictionary says that it means something about "The thing you've just said is well-known, you won't interest anyone with it".

I can't stop wondering, where does that phrase come from?

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abviously the term was coined AFTER Queen Anne died. –  Sȱɳɨȼ Ʈħe ǶḝÐɠḝħȱɠ Sep 7 '11 at 19:17
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I'm British and in my early forties (in 2012) and, whilst I have mostly come across the phrase "Queen Anne is dead" in literature (often in early Twentieth Century novels, I've found), I have heard it used in day to day conversation (and indeed I've used it myself on rare occasions) so it's not quite moribund yet — less dead than Queen Anne anyway! –  user27395 Oct 13 '12 at 12:04

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I haven't heard the expression myself but a quick Google search led me to this answer, I can't really tell how reliable is the source:
http://en.allexperts.com/q/German-Language-1585/2009/2/Idiomatic-expressions.htm
The relevant part from the answer would be:

the death of Queen Anne was officially hushed up for a while [...] News had leaked out, so when at last there was an official announcement of the Queen's death, the crowd chanted in derision "Queen Anne is dead - didn't you know?" and to this day "And Queen Anne is dead" is a standard rejoinder to somebody who bears stale news or states the obvious.

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Never heard the expression either - in fact I'd be interested to know if anyone here has. –  Benjol Nov 16 '10 at 11:55
    
I wonder if that's a British thing, or an idiom that is now as dead as poor Queen Anne. –  Jay Sep 11 '12 at 15:50
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That story immediately struck me as dubious, as I had never heard that her death was hushed up, and indeed I haven't found anywhere that it was (though I also haven't found anywhere that it wasn't). But PLL's answer from the OED puts paid to this. If it was in print in 1798, it was probably spoken earlier; but it is very unlikely to have been in circulation for 80 years without a record we can find. –  Colin Fine Jan 9 '13 at 16:49

The OED attests this meaning of the phrase to 1798:

G. Colman Heir at Law i. i. 6  What will they hear but what they know? our story a secret, Lord help you!—tell ’em Queen Anne's dead, my Lady.

It cites also a usage of the phrase from 1770, but that example doesn’t seem to intend the same connotation of “old news”. Interestingly, though, it cross-references us also to Queen Elizabeth’s dead, given with the same meaning, and attested from as far back 1738 (but rarely since then):

Swift Compl. Coll. Genteel Conversat. 5 Why, Madam, Queen Elizabeth’s dead.

Looking at this in context, it seems to be roughly the same “old news” meaning, assuming the conversation in the book is supposed to be contemporary: Elizabeth I died in 1603. For comparison, Queen Anne died in 1714, so this wouldn’t have been quite so old in 1798 as Elizabeth’s decease was in 1738.

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An earlier parallel occurs in the Bible in JOSHUA 1:2 - 'Moses my servant is dead; na then, Joshua, stop moonin' around...' (Risky Version). Joshua was well aware that Moses had died; God was, after a decent interval for mourning, galvanising Joshua for action, saying 'That chapter's over.' –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 20 '13 at 8:29

Queen Anne was the daughter of James II of England (a Stuart), who was deposed as king by the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 that brought his daughter Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, to the throne as William and Mary. James had been Catholic. William and Mary were Protestant. After Mary and then William died, Mary's sister, Anne, was named Queen. She, too, was a Protestant, but it was known that James' son and Anne's brother, a/k/a the Pretender, had supporters who wished for the restoration of the Stuarts and possibly Catholicism.

In 1714, Queen Anne was known to be in ill-health. She had no heirs because her children had all died in childhood. Her official successor was to be her nephew, the son of her sister Sophia, who had married a German potentate. That nephew, George of Hanover, was German, not British. This state of affairs had the country on edge, as it was anticipated that, upon Queen Anne's death, a civil war could break out between the factions of the Stuarts and the Hanovers.

When Queen Anne finally died, her death was not announced until it was clear that George of Hanover would become George I of Great Britain and that there would be no war. By the time of the official announcement of the Queen's death to the public, everybody who mattered already knew that she had died.

And so "Tell 'em Queen Anne's dead" became the equivalent of the modern, "tell me something I don't already know."

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Hi Dave. thanks for taking the time to answer. I think the pertinent bits of what you say are covered in the accepted answer. You might find better quarry in newer questions that are not so adeptly answered. –  Matt Эллен Sep 24 '11 at 9:33
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@MattЭллен: And yet how singularly appropriate that he chose this topic to post a redundant answer to... –  Charles Dec 1 '11 at 3:25
    
Sophia was not Queen Anne's sister. –  user33433 Jan 9 '13 at 16:33

A bill to restrict freedom of worship was due to be passed, but before it could receive the royal assent the queen died. The message was therefore sounded round the nonconformists 'The Queen is dead', the result being that they were safe. It was as a result of this that Isaac Watts penned the well known hymn (a paraphrase of Psalm 90) Our God (as originally written) our help in ages past.

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protected by RegDwigнt Jan 9 '13 at 16:35

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