Fraser’s Phrases: The Gruesome Story of Sweet Fanny Adams

Fanny Adams' gravestone

Today’s post is devoted to a particularly bleak sense of humour, among naval sailors, which resulted in a horrifying expression that became blunted by time, only to be freshly sharpened again when people began to misinterpret it anew.

So, let’s start at the beginning. Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Fanny Adams. She was not called this out of malice by her sniggering parents, this was an era before the term fanny had become rude in the UK. It may even have preceded the American interpretation too.

In any case, this story has a terrible end. Fanny Adams was eight years old when she was brutally murdered, and dismembered, on August 24, 1867, in the rural village of Alton, Hampshire.

There was an understandable national outcry, especially as the murderer, Frederick Baker, appeared to be entirely unconcerned by what he had done (there’s a full account of it here), and so with all the outrage and panic that such an awful thing could happen, Fanny Adams was a household name for a while.

At around the same time, British sailors in the Royal Navy were having to adjust to a new food regime aboard ship. Rather than cooking meals using ingredients which could easily spoil on a long journey, the Navy took to the recent innovation of tinned food with some vigour. Unfortunately, the sailors were less than impressed, especially when opening a tin of mutton or stew. Remember, we’re used to the appearance of tinned meat, and the shape in which it arrives (think of how unappetising dog food looks), but this will have been a whole new world for the navy, and soon the black joke went around that there was nothing in these tins apart from the remains of sweet Fanny Adams.

It’s a shocking joke, even after all these years, and yet somehow it caught on as an expression. Soon, when you wanted to express disappointment, that you’d been expecting something and you got nothing – anything from a hot meal to wages – you’d bitterly moan that you’d had sweet Fanny Adams or sweet FA for your trouble.

As the years passed, it began to look as if the expression had been somehow gentrified for public use, and that sweet Fanny Adams was an extreme gentrification of sweet FA, which was clearly short for sweet f*** all. So people started saying that instead, assuming they were simply putting things back in their rightful place. But they weren’t.

The real truth was, and is, far less palatable.

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

See more posts by Fraser McAlpine