Damn all, Bugger all, Sod all etc., etc. What does all mean here? How did the expression originate? Was there a single original term (expletive or not) preceding all in this usage?

At the risk of overbroadening the question, does the underlying linguistic mechanism that gives rise to this expression generate others that are very similar? And are there close parallels in other languages?

  • I've accepted Karl's answer because it seems undeniably true. But I feel it's a bit like saying the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the cause of WW1 - true, but not particularly enlightening. I'm still intrigued as to why this particular usage became so prevalent, with so many variants. – FumbleFingers Apr 5 '11 at 16:32
  • Undeniable does not mean true. It just means you haven't been able to deny it yet. – MrHen Apr 5 '11 at 22:48
  • Don't rub salt in the wound MrHen. I was trying to be diplomatic and disguise my scepticism! – FumbleFingers Apr 5 '11 at 23:45
  • Anyway, the bounty is for the bigger picture, not the particular Fanny or Franz who happened to be in the frame at the right time. So unless anyone else has a better exposition of the principles / processes at work here, it'll go to you. – FumbleFingers Apr 5 '11 at 23:50
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    This is an example of what's called a Squatitive in the trade. As in He knows/doesn't know squat about that. More squatitives here. – John Lawler Aug 12 '15 at 22:09

It is widely accepted that the others are all variations of F**ck All.

It is further thought that F**k All is in fact a misunderstanding of the phrase 'sweet F.A.', meaning 'nothing at all'.

The story:

The phrase 'Sweet F.A.' is of British military origin and refers to Fanny Adams, a girl who was murdered quite gruesomely in the mid-1800s.

British naval soldiers likened their unpleasant meat rations to the remains of Fanny Adams. 'Sweet Fanny Adams' or 'Sweet F.A.' was then applied as a slang term for mutton and eventually for anything worthless.

Later, F.A. was assumed, by those not knowing the origin, to mean 'F**k All'.

Finally, with the 'F word' being as harsh as it is, it is often replaced by euphemism or lesser expletives, which has given rise to the variations you mentioned.

Hope this helps.

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    After further inspection, I see that the graph you presented is not really accurate, given context. Looking at the usage, you will see that all of them as I can see are as part of sentences such as "..plants f**k all nourishment from the crop..." and are not used in the same sense as this question deals with. – Karl Apr 3 '11 at 15:32
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    @Karl Millson: Your diligence is a much-needed reminder to me not to accept at face value anything that seems to back up my preconceptions. In a futile (and unworthy!) attempt to discredit your point, I checked a 1960 use of sod all by Dickens - but it's just an OCR error... [1]: books.google.com/… – FumbleFingers Apr 3 '11 at 16:58
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    @Karl: while you’ve certainly debunked @Fumblefingers’ debunking, the Fanny Adams derivation still has very much the whiff of folk etymology/urban myth about it — I’d be much happier to see some source for this. – PLL Apr 5 '11 at 17:10
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    The OED confirms that Fanny Adams for naval mutton etc. goes back much further than anything else in discussion — 1889 is its first citation. But in the sense of “nothing”, it’s very inconclusive: fuck all is cited from 1916, (sweet) Fanny Adams in this sense from 1919, damn all from 1922, sod all and bugger all much later. It’s completely non-committal about the relationships between these, only saying that sweet Fanny Adams is “sometimes interpreted as a euphemism for ‘sweet fuck all’ in the same sense.” – PLL Apr 5 '11 at 17:45
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    @Karl: I guess the reason for the downvotes is that there’s a big wariness here of turning into a site which just spreads urban myths further. The discussion in comments backs up that this is at least pretty plausible. But the original answer looks exactly like the kind of thing that spreads the urban myths — repeating a colourful story, with authoritative-sounding phrasing (“It is widely accepted that…”, “It is further thought that…”) but no actual sources, data, or evidence. If you edit the answer to incorporate some of the evidence from comments, I guess it will go down much better. – PLL Apr 9 '11 at 16:08

I have always taken the "all" here to mean "everyone" or "everything". As in, "Nothing works, damn everything." The fuck or damn emphatically negates the all to say, "fuck all choices."

Less explicit ways to use the phrase do exist. The first that comes to mind: "Hang all."

  • Following feedback from Karl Millson I can hardly argue against Fanny Adams as the hapless 'progenitrix', but I do like the thinking here. Even if it doesn't represent the direct cause of the expression in all its variants, it seems very possible these associations would help a naval (or other) term to gain currency in the general populace. – FumbleFingers Apr 3 '11 at 17:10
  • (wild speculation) Is it possible Fuck all! existed in the vernacular with the general sense of Sod everything!, even before Dickens? It would hardly get much recorded in written form, given proscriptions against profanity. I have no idea when damn started to be used as an oath in the modern style, even. – FumbleFingers Apr 6 '11 at 0:17
  • I suppose it is possible. Other uses to look for: "fuck it all"; "fuck you all"; etc. – MrHen Apr 6 '11 at 18:44
  • Cure all. (in 15 characters too) – Billy ONeal Apr 7 '11 at 3:57
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    @MrHen: scanning Ngram stuff suggests damn it all! was something of a thowaway exclamation by the 1870's - slightly dashing & uppercrust, rather than low or risque. It was certainly around as a 'general purpose oath' in the 1840's - and probably at least decades earlier. Easy enough to lose the it, but the meaning still had to morph a fair bit to get to today's usage. – FumbleFingers Apr 7 '11 at 22:16

Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English leads us on this wild goose chase:

bugger all: (see damn all)

damn all: (bowdlerization of fuck all)

fuck all: a low variant of damn all: nothing: late C. 19-20.

There is no explanation of why this is used. Perhaps the reason is lost to us.

  • As I recall, it was a bit of a challenge at school to find circular definitions like that in various cheap schoolboy dictionaries. But I think Partridge wouldn't have got past the bike sheds. They are annoying as well as amusing, though. Frustrating, I mean. – FumbleFingers Apr 6 '11 at 4:32
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    +1 for wild goose chasing (since I'm assuming getting a definitive answer is that). – jbelacqua Apr 6 '11 at 18:23
  • Well I have great respect for Partridge. Maybe he deliberately put the circularity in there to mimic the feeling you get when you mull over the Fanny Adams story for too long. – FumbleFingers Apr 7 '11 at 1:45

Not to make things worse... but... I've begun to wonder if there was at one time (since the meanings/usage seem to have diverged) a link between F.A. (as Fuck All) and Fucking A. Nothing particular suggests this but the obsurity of origin of both FA and F'n A give me an itch.

If FA and Fanny Adams can be linked, with Fanny being pretty well documented to have military origin, I note F'n A seems to be believed to have military origin.

Here we have a reason to get rid of censorship... it interferes with the studdy of words.

  • I dunno. It seems to me the form "That's fucking A [man]" is much more recent (maybe late 1980s?). No meaningful connection with sweet FA which goes back about a century earlier. – FumbleFingers May 25 '14 at 14:43

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