The phrase nuthin' doin' in American slang means "There's nothing interesting or exciting going on".

How does doin' come to mean "happening"?

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    Huh. I've always "nothing doing" to express "No way: I steadfastly refuse to do what you just proposed I do.", as in "You wanna go for a bike ride?" // "Nothin' doin'. It's freezing out, and raining to boot". In re: happening <=> doing, well, you have "a happening" and "a do" which both broadly mean "an event". – Dan Bron Nov 27 '14 at 17:28
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    I believe this is a remnant of the passival voice, which is effectively a present active participle used as a present passive participle: e.g. nothin' doin' = nothing's being done. Other remnants: the house is building/being built; dinner is cooking/being cooked. – Anonym Nov 27 '14 at 19:08
  • @Anonym: I like this explanation. – TRomano Nov 29 '14 at 19:05

It certainly goes back a long way even in that exact form. Disregarding "eye-dialect" spelling, I found this from The Substance of the Speech of John Adolphus (1814)...

He stated that he had gone to the yards and found nothing doing (the yards were idle)

But to be more specific about the "etymology", I think it's reasonable to go back even further, to this example from The Scots Magazine (1755)...

...every thing is very quiet at Ferrol, the ships being entirely dismasted, nothing a-doing

  • Interesting use of the participle in the Adolphus piece : "...if there were not ships building or repairing..." – TRomano Nov 27 '14 at 18:51
  • @TRomano: Indeed. Personally I'd have no problem with ships a-building there (to me, such use of the a- prefix isn't quite obsolete), but (probably for phonological reasons more than anything else) I can't really get my head around ships a-repairing. – FumbleFingers Nov 27 '14 at 18:59

Early British uses of "nothing doing" do indeed have the sense "There's nothing interesting or exciting going on," as the poster says. For example, from a letter from the Earl of Manchester to "Mr. Secretary Vernon" (December 29, 1700), reprinted in Christian Cole, Memoirs of Affairs of State Concerning Letters (1733):

As to that Person, I found him settled here [in Paris], and the laying of him totally aside, may be of ill consequence ; for it may be in his power to do hurt, tho' I fear he can never do much good, at least since my being here I have never learned any thing of him. He always says there is nothing doing ; whatever I acquainted you with, came from other Hands. I am sensible it is not much, but the Care must be the same, lest any thing should happen of consequence, and it is the most troublesome part of my Business here.

And again in a letter from the same Earl of Manchester to Vernon on January 22, 1701:

The Duke of Berwick is gone from Rome, and Mr. Hamilton, who commanded in Ireland, is gone with him. His instructions are to engage the Pope in their interest, and to obtain some Money, and also a Cardinal's Cap to be disposed of by the late King, which they think will give him great Credit in Europe. There is nothing doing at present in St. Germains. They are impatient to see what sort of Parliament we are like to have.

Also, from Thomas Trenchard, The Inquisitor (1732):

There has been now a considerable Space elapsed since the Publication of my last Inquisitor, occasioned through an Unwillingness to be continually troubling the Town, when there was nothing doing worth their Notice, and a Dislike of entertaining them with the polite Altercations of Billingsgate ; into which, according to his wonted Method of shifting Argument, the Free Briton would fain have drawn me.

However, in U.S. English, "nothing doing" has the meaning that Dan Bron identifies in a comment above: "no way" or "not a chance." According to The Random House Dictionary of American Slang (1997), this usage goes back more than 100 years:

nothing doing (used as a refusal of a request); indeed not! no! Now colloq.

1910 in OEDS: Spotford offered the porter a dime. The negro waved it aside and said: "Nothing doing; my price is a quarter at least." 1916 E.R. Burroghs, Return of Mucker 54: Nothin' doin' ... but t'anks just the same. 1922 F.L. Packard Doors of Night 53: "Kick it in, Whitie!" ... "Nothin' doin'!" 1931 F. Marion Champ (film): Wash three or four times a day? All over? Nothin' doin'!

From these examples, I conjecture that "nothing doing" was idiomatic in England from at least 1700—with the same resistance to logical explanation that idioms usually have—and that the U.S. sense of the phrase emerged—perhaps independently—some 200 years later. It is by no means far-fetched to suppose that the later sense emerged directly out of the earlier one, however, given that the earlier sense had cross the Atlantic by the first half of the 1800s. For example, from American [Baltimore, Maryland] Farmer (December 3, 1824):

We have taken the round of the wharves to ascertain if there be any change, worthy of note, in the price of the articles usually quoted in the American Farmer. The result is, that, as to Tobacco, there is nothing doing; no sales—Wheat is dull, and flour much on hand and little doing—Red Wheat may be quoted at 90 to 95 cents—Wharf Flour at $4.62½, 90 days credit.

And from the Genesee [Rochester, New York] Farmer (January 1846):

We hear of no change in the state of the market. Dulness is the prevailing feature, and a general indisposition on all sides to operate. Holders of flour are holding on at $5, while it sells at 5,50 a 5,62 1-2 in New York ; and buyers are holding off at 4,50, and are not inclined to go above that figure. There is therefore nothing doing, except in small parcels for the city trade.

The mercantile setting of both of these early U.S. instances may not be merely coincidental, but may point to the route by which the idiom reached the United States.

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