Sometimes writing can be the ‘bane of my life’ as I struggle with motivation, procrastination and any other barriers that life throws at me. Recently, whilst procrastinating, er I mean, ‘researching,’ I came across the origins of a well know phrase which shocked me so much that I felt the need to write something about it.
We all probably use a turn of phrase, colloquial saying or some other weird idiomatic expression at least once per day but where do such expressions originate and what do they actually mean? Has the original meaning of these sayings changed over time? If we look at the example in my opening line we often think of ‘bane’ as being some kind of trouble, affliction or ruin but the saying isn’t used as frequently as it used to be. The first recorded use of the word goes back to the Old English Chronicles (circa 1000) in which bane actually meant ‘murderer’ and literally means ‘that which causes death’, such as with a deadly poison. It is commonly used in combination, as in the names of poisonous plants such as Ratsbane (rat poison/arsenic), Henbane and Wolfsbane.
Even simple well-known phrases such as ‘OK’ (Okay) may have a distant relationship with murder. This phrase has evolved from many (often disputed) suggested derivations and one of those originates from the First World War, whereby nightly reports from the frontline filed on a good day would report that there were no fatalities or ‘0 Killed’ or simply abbreviated to zero K and written as ‘0K.’ Although this proposed etymology is disputed.
For those of you who like the occasional flutter, gamble or bet you have probably heard of the phrase ‘third time lucky,’ which seems to suggest that you should not quit after two failed attempts at something. It is quite often spoken aloud as a verbal good luck charm just before trying that fateful third attempt, but where did this phrase originate and how could it relate to death? Well there is a belief, in English Law, that a judicial court would set any person who managed to survive three failed attempts at being hung free.
This belief could well relate to John Henry George Lee (born 1864) who later became known notoriously as John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee. Lee, who was born in Devon, England and served in the Royal Navy, was a thief who was convicted of the brutal murder of his employer Emma Keyse at Babbacombe Bay near Torquay in 1885.
Emma was killed with a knife on 15th November 1884. Lee was the only male at the house at the time of the murder and had a previous criminal record and, not to mention, an unexplained cut on his arm, so Lee was arrested. Despite the weak circumstantial evidence against him and his desperate pleas of not guilty Lee was sentenced to death by hanging.
On the 23rd February 1885 three attempts were made to hang Lee at Exeter Prison but, despite the executioner testing it thoroughly beforehand, the trapdoor failed to open on each attempt. The Home Secretary at the time, Sir William Harcourt, commuted Lee’s sentence to life imprisonment and, after petitioning future Home Secretaries, Lee was released in 1907. Lee became known as ‘the man they could not hang’ and after his release he made a living off his notoriety.
It is possible that the phrase ‘third time lucky’ predates this story and simply originates from folklore and the belief that we should persevere through our hardships such as in the phrase ‘try, try and try again’ or the American expression ‘third time’s a charm,’ either way they all seem to relate to the belief that there is luck or goodness associated with the number three, such as with the Christian Trinity.
The phrase that caused me to write this blog post was ‘sweet Fanny Adams,’ or simply ‘sweet FA,’ which, in recent years, has coined the euphemism for meaning ‘f**k all.’ Now how does this phrase relate to murder and exactly who was Fanny Adams?
Fanny Adams was an English girl born on 30th April 1859 in the rural community of Alton, Hampshire and when her name hit the newspaper headlines it caused revulsion, anger and utter sadness. On Saturday 24th August 1867, when Fanny was just eight years and four months old, she was brutally murdered while out playing with her sister and a friend.
On that fateful summer’s afternoon Fanny and her younger sister Elizabeth (Lizzie) went with their friend Minnie Warner to play in a place known locally as the Hollow, which adjoined a hop garden in Alton, and was surrounded by a high hedge. In the middle of playing together a man suddenly made an appearance saying “Ah, my little tulips, what are you playing at?” The man, Frederick Baker, a twenty-nine year old local solicitor’s clerk, offered them halfpence each before picking blackberries for them in the Hollow. Baker told Minnie and Lizzie to go home and spend their money before lifting Fanny up in his arms and saying “Come with me, and I will give you two pence more.” In protest Fanny cried out, “My mother wants me to go home” but Baker carried her out of sight behind the hedge and into the hop garden.
When Lizzie and Minnie returned without Fanny they told a neighbour, Mrs Gardner, what had happened and she went with the two girls to find Fanny. As they entered Tanhouse Lane Mrs Gardner confronted Baker who was very polite and admitted that he had indeed given the children money but he had left them to continue playing. He replied so readily and gentlemanly that Mrs Gardner begged his pardon and continued on with the search. Sometime after 7pm that night Fanny’s horribly mutilated body was discovered in the hop garden.
Fanny’s head, legs and parts of her arms had been severed completely. Her body parts were found scattered across the hop garden, tossed into an adjacent field and further away still, down in the river Wey, her eyes had been discarded in two separate places. In total, seven different local people and police constables discovered various body parts strewn across the area near the scene of this brutal murder. Baker had completely removed all of poor Fanny’s internal organs and her private parts, which were also removed, were never found.
During Baker’s murder trial his own diary was admitted as evidence because of a single entry which he had written on the day of the murder, it simply read, ‘Killed a young girl. It was fine and hot’ – those two juxtaposed images clearly show what a depraved maniac he was. The jury only took fifteen minutes to find Baker guilty and he was sentenced to death. On Christmas Eve 1867 Baker became one of the last people to be hung at Winchester County Prison in front of a crowd of approximately five thousand people, mostly women.
As the family of Fanny Adams were poor her gravestone was erected by voluntary public subscription and it still stands in the local cemetery on Old Odiham Road, Alton today. That gravestone might have been the only reminder of the brutal, horrific slaying of sweet Fanny Adam’s if her name hadn’t become part of a phrase which now means ‘nothing at all,’ but where did the phrase originate?
It seems that the source of the saying can be traced to the macabre humour of the British Armed Forces. In 1869 British sailors were introduced to new on board convenience food in the shape of tins of mutton, the contents of which looked most undesirable and tasted foul. The sailors commented that the tins contents could even be the butchered remains of sweet Fanny Adams and from then on the saying ‘sweet Fanny Adams’ came to mean something worthless or ‘sweet nothing’ or simply ‘nothing at all’ and, more recently, it has become shortened to ‘sweet FA’ or ‘sweet F**k All.’
It is sad to think that poor Fanny’s name lives on but for all the wrong reasons.
RIP Fanny Adams you were not, and never will be, worthless.
“Every man has the devil inside of him, somewhere” – (source unknown)
Sources of info:
John Lee’s 1907 book