Sweet Fanny Adams
Sweet Fanny Adams or its abbreviated format of SFA or its earthier equivalent, Sweet F**k All is used to denote nothing as in what have you got/ Sweet Fanny Adams ie nothing. But where did it come from?
The starting point is sweet Fanny Adams who was a real person and the victim of a shocking and tragic crime, committed on 24th August 1867 in the rural Hampshire village of Alton and which had a profound effect on Victorians at the time.
That sunny Saturday afternoon Fanny, her sister and a friend, Minnie Warner, went off for a walk when they encountered a man who had obviously been drinking. The man offered the children money, for Fanny to accompany him and for the other two girls to make themselves scarce. When Fanny didn’t return home in the evening a search party was sent out and a gruesome discovery was made.
Fanny’s severed head was found on two poles, her right ear cut off and both eyes missing – they were later found in the adjacent River Wey. A leg and thigh was found nearby and a wider search uncovered a dismembered torso with the contents of the chest and pelvis torn out and scattered and some of the internal organs further cut and mutilated.
The police arrested the man at his place of work, a solicitor’s office in Alton, and he was identified as 29 year old Frederick Baker. Despite protesting his innocence, his clothing was damp and had specks of blood on them. Witnesses confirmed seeing Baker leave his office around 1 o’clock and returning around half past five, the timeline when the murder took place. Fanny’s friend, Minnie positively identified Baker as the man who propositioned them and the nail in his figurative coffin was a somewhat injudicious diary entry which said, “24th August – Saturday – killed a young girl. It was fine and hot”. It took the jury just 15 minutes to find him guilty and Baker was hung in front of a crowd of 5,000 at Winchester prison on Christmas Eve 1867.
Such was the popular outcry following this heinous crime that a headstone, which still stands in Alton cemetery, was funded by public subscription. As is often the way, something that is truly horrendous becomes corrupted and used in the vernacular to signify something else. Showing extreme indelicacy the sailors in the British navy called their meat rations, Fanny Adams as Barrere and Leland corroborate in their Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant of 1889 thus, “Fanny Adams (naval), tinned mutton”. The suggestion is that so unpleasant was the tucker that the matelots likened it to the dead girl’s innards.
The expletive f**k has a long history but was considered to be too strong to be written down or uttered in mildly polite society. Naturally, euphemisms were used and poor Fanny’s name was taken in vain once she had gained the oxygen of publicity and some bright spark noticed that her initials were identical to the expletive suggesting absolutely nothing.
Walter Downing’s glossary of soldier’s slang called Digger’s Dialects, published in 1919, has this entry, “F.A, Fanny Adams or Sweet Fanny Adams – nothing; vacuity”.
An unsavoury way to be remembered in perpetuo, to be sure, but at least we now know.