Fairy Ann

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David Shariatmadari, "That eggcorn moment: If you’ve been signalled out by friends for saying ‘when all is set and done’, you’re not alone – linguists even have a word for it", The Guardian 9/16/2014:

Learning your mother tongue might seem effortless, but doesn’t always go without a hitch. In particular, you may hear certain sets of words and break them down wrongly in your head. So long as your version is plausible, sounds the same, and you’re not asked to write it down, the error can persist for years. I was in sixth form when I realised my version of “as opposed to” wasn’t widely shared. I thought it was “as a pose to”, which in my head implied some kind of challenge to an existing idea, like posing a question.

Confirming the general public's fascination with linguistics, there are 1108 comments so far.

Shariatmadari links extensively to the Eggcorn Database, and quotes a lovely passage from Jeannette Winterson, "Etymology", 6/11/2006:

I laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a “damp squid”, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?

So true, especially since squib is all but obsolete in the U.S. (0.1 per million in COCA) and rare in the (still) U.K. (0.29 per million in the BNC), compared to squid at 1.58 and 1.57.

But my favorite part of Winterson's post was this, which was new to me:

My father was in Ipres, (pronounced Wipers), during the War, and like many of his generation, came back with bits of French.  

Ce ne fait rien turned into San Fairy Ann, meaning Stuff You, and then a new character emerged in Lancashire-speak, known as Fairy Ann; a got-up creature, no better than she should be, who couldn’t give a damn. ‘San Fairy Ann to you’, morphed into, ‘Who does she think she is? Fairy Ann?’

I wonder if the original might not have been ""ça ne fait rien", but whether the subject is ce or ça, the French expression is closer to "no sweat" than to "stuff you", so there was apparently some cross-channel drift in pragmatics as well as phonology.

However, Fairy Ann has had her Word Induction Ceremony — the OED explains san fairy ann., n., as

Jocular form repr. French ça ne fait rien ‘it does not matter’, said to have originated in army use in the war of 1914–18.

An expression of indifference to, or resigned acceptance of, a state of affairs. Also ellipt. as Fairy Ann.

And among the citations is this one:

1930   R. Kipling Thy Servant a Dog iii. 88   We said we were wonderful brave dog… He said ‘Fairy Ann! Fairy Ann!’

The citations do include a clue about how Stuff You might have crept in:

1956   F. B. Vickers in Coast to Coast 1955–6 72   ‘Ya. Good night.’ ‘San ferry ann, Joe.’ ‘Which means black you, Jack, I'm all right,’ Tom shouted.

This is apparently an an instance of the principle of Default Expletive Insertion underlying Army jokes like this one:

A: Hey, could you pass me the wrench?
B: Say what?
A: Please pass me the wrench.
B: Huh?
A: Pass me the fucking wrench!
B: Sure, why didn't you say so?




  1. Dick Margulis said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 7:30 am

    "If you've been signalled out," of course, is its own eggcorn, perhaps unnoticed by its writer.

  2. Rodger C said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 7:30 am

    I understand that WWI Tommies who were transorted to the continent on the French liner Henri IV called it the Angry Cat.

  3. Joseph F Foster said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 8:43 am

    Your story on Fairy Anne puts me in mind of the Filipinos who are reported to have thought that the patron saint of America was Saint Ababis. Because American soldiers were always calling upon him, saying "San Ababís! !

  4. Theophylact said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 8:47 am

    And of course "plonk" for cheap [white] wine.

  5. Ann Godridge said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 9:13 am

    Spotted recently in the wilds of Facebook

    "run a mock"


    "People are using their critical factories, not just regurgitating what they've been taught in school"

    I remember San Fairy Ann from my Lancashire childhood, and it was generally used to mean "nothing" or "nothing that matters" with a shrug or even anger, I think.

  6. Mark Etherton said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 9:52 am

    And there's the WW1 story about a lady doing good works visiting wounded soldiers, who asks one where and how he was wounded. He tells her what happened to him at the battle of ypres, which he calls 'Wipers', and every time he mentions 'Wipers' she says 'Ypres'. After five minutes of this the soldier says 'I'd have those hiccups checked while you're in a hosptial, luv'.

  7. Christopher said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 10:17 am

    "as a pose to" for "as opposed to" is somehow a real pleasure for me to consider.

  8. Eneri Rose said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 10:19 am

    What does "I was in sixth form" mean?

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 10:33 am

    Dick Margulis: I feel sure the eggcorns in the article title are intentional.

    Eneri Rose: I think "I was in sixth form" is pretty close to American English "I was a senior in high school". Someone may be along with a better explanation.

  10. Dick Margulis said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 10:42 am

    Jerry Friedman: Having now clicked through to the article, I see that you're right. I withdraw the comment.

  11. Rob said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    "Sixth form" refers (in England, maybe in Wales too) to the last two years of school, between the ages of about 16 and 18.

    I hope not too far off-topic, but I came across a nice eggcorn this week: "less it be forgotten" http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2014/09/difference-engine-0 I wanted to post this on the forum attached to the Eggcorn Database, but I was not able to register for the forum, so maybe somebody will pick it up from here instead.

  12. Peter said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 11:11 am

    I wonder if there was some influence, one way or the other, between San Fairy Ann and Sweet Fanny Adams? Same initials, similar personifications, similarly slangy and slightly euphemistic.

    According to the OED (and various other sources), Fanny Adams was originally navy slang for tinned meat, attested to 1889 and named after “a child who was murdered and dismembered at Alton, Hampshire, England, in August 1867”; while Sweet Fanny Adams for “nothing” is attested to 1919, presumably with its current euphemistic allusion.

  13. Bob Ladd said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

    Is Fairy Ann really an eggcorn, or just an extreme phonetic adaptation, like San Ababís? In American army usage in post-war Germany, the German expression macht nichts (which, presumably coincidentally, means the same as ça ne fait rien), was adopted as mox nix, with a meaning something like 'trivial, worthless'. Here, as with Fairy Ann, there's no semantic re- or mis-analysis involved, just phonetic adaptation and semantic drift.

    [(myl) I agree, basically. Though "mox nix" doesn't map the German phrase onto existing English words in the way that "Fairy Ann" does, so that the "Fairy Ann" case is more similar to the process of eggcornification.]

  14. CuConnacht said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 1:58 pm

    Peter: But surely the semantic travels of Fanny Adams from tinned meat to "nothing at all" was influenced by the identical initials of Fanny Adams and fuck all.

  15. Rube said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 2:34 pm

    @Bob Ladd, my introduction to "mox nix" was in the Tom T. Hall song, "Salute to a Switchblade" about American soldiers drinking and picking up girls in Germany:

    "I said 'Excuse me Mister, that's my seat. I'd like to have it back, sir, if you'd please. That girl's a nurse and I've been awful sick'.

    The man looked up and me and said 'Mox nix'.

    (Which means, he was not overly concerned with my health.)"

    "Mox nix" here seems to have a somewhat stronger meaning than "That's trivial", especially given that the man who says it proceeds to pull a switchblade knife and attack the narrator for picking up his wife.

  16. dw said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    I wish "eggcorns" had a different name, because "eggcorn" doesn't sound remotely similar to "acorn" in my accent :(

  17. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 3:03 pm

    You could try "hay corns".

  18. Anthony said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

    Until your comment, I didn't even realize "eggcorn" was supposed to be an eggcorn for "acorn".

  19. Ø said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

    "Fairy Ann" reminds me of a sort of family eggcorn: my sister, when young, heard "ferry boat" as "fairy boat" and then misremembered that as "angel boat".

  20. Karl Weber said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 6:36 pm

    Here's a video of Paul McCartney and Wings singing his song "San Ferry Anne": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Usw-QAAR3Xo

    Very catchy in typical McCartney fashion.

  21. maidhc said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 5:02 am

    I encounter "pacific" for "specific" quite often.

  22. Deirdre said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 5:08 am

    With regard to

    Confirming the general public's fascination with linguistics

    there was an article in Salon today about a lawyer writing a letter opposing equal rights for homosexuals. The first comment was a long complaint that the journalist had used the phrase 'time and memorial' and adding a list of eggcorns they also hated. Fair enough point to make on a linguistics blog about that, but possibly not the most relevant point in that context.
    As has been mentioned on this blog many times, sometimes it's genuine interest in language, sometimes it's peeving and trying to feel superior.

  23. Keith said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 5:52 am

    Fairy Anne can also be fortuitously abbreviated to F.A., as in "sweet F.A.".

    Winterson makes a little spelling mistake in her post, which spoils her anecdote a little. The Belgian town that she mentions is spelled with an letter Y, not a letter I. This explains why the Tommies called it "Wipers".

  24. Chas Belov said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 12:19 am

    I just ran across the eggcorn "time and memorial" for "time immemorial" in a news story Attorney apologizes for 'harsh' letter on gay rights http://www.news-leader.com/story/news/local/ozarks/2014/09/18/attorney-apologizes-harsh-letter-gay-rights/15823355/

    The eggcorn is in the photograph of the letter at the end of the article, in the second paragraph.

  25. KeefD said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 7:03 am

    I think this may be an eggcorn: US "scarf" (for bolting food) as a mishearing for a non-rhotic US pronunciation of British English "scoff" – ie scoff –> scahf –> scarf.

    I suspect a similar cross-Atlantic mechanism in Scottish English "yatter" (Chambers: Tiresome, irritatingly demanding or persistent chatter) becoming US "yada yada".

    However, these may both be simple mondegreens rather than eggcorns – as, indeed, it seems to me, are some of the examples on this page – since the mishearings lack plausible connection with the original meanings.

    I notice many instances in which US pronunciation of u as oo and of t as d appears to have led to mishearings. One – probaby deliberate – that embodies both these is duty –> doody. (Peter in Family Guy finds this hilarious, as in "I must do my doody".)

    Two personal eggcorns from a friend of mine: antibionics (for antibiotics) and flaptop (for laptop), which is my favourite! He trots out dozens of these, completely unawares.

  26. KeefD said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 8:17 am

    Re sixth form, English secondary (high) schools used to number their "forms" from First (age 11) to Fifth (16), when compulsory (post-1973) education ended, which could be followed by two years in the Sixth form (17-18) for those looking for additional exam qualifications for university entrance or for their CV (Resume). However, education until age 18 is now compulsory for anyone at school in the current academic year.

    Nowadays English schools tend to count in schooling years, so compulsory primary (elementary) education begins at age 5 with Year 1 (with optional reception (kindergarten) classes for age 4+) and ends at age 11 with Year 6, followed by compulsory secondary education running from ages 12 to 18 with Years 7 to 13.

    Other models and nomenclatures exist. I warn that the main Wikipedia article Education in England is defective in many respects, but I'm sure no one here is *that* interested!

  27. Piyush said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

    @Joseph Foster

    Because American soldiers were always calling upon him, saying "San Ababís!

    I still can't figure out what English word or phrase could be misheard as 'San Ababís'.

  28. Danny M said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 11:06 pm


    I've been refreshing this page waiting for someone to answer you because I didn't get it either, until I did.

    Clue: Put the stress on the first and last syllables.


    [Which I'm burying here in this block of text in order to break the expression son of a bitch over two lines, in case you glance at it before having the pleasure of working it out for yourself.]

  29. Ngamudji said,

    September 22, 2014 @ 12:58 am

    There were a number of 'French' phrases from world war 1 digger slang still being used by my grandparents' generation in 50s and 60s Australia. At the time, most of the younger generation who grew up hearing these phrases didn't realise they had derived from French. Examples:
    Toot sweet = straight away (from 'tout de suite'), or Alley toot sweet = go quickly / run away
    Bonza = really good (from 'bon'?)
    Tray beans = very good (from 'tres bien'?)
    Plonk = wine (from 'vin blanc'?)
    and of course San Fairy Ann = don't mention it / no worries

  30. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    September 22, 2014 @ 2:51 am

    Re Keith said:

    *Fairy Anne can also be fortuitously abbreviated to F.A., as in "sweet F.A.". – It can but "Sweet F.A." is generally though to come from "Sweet Fanny Adams", as mentioned in other comments.

    *Winterson makes a little spelling mistake in her post, which spoils her anecdote a little. The Belgian town that she mentions is spelled with an letter Y, not a letter I. This explains why the Tommies called it "Wipers". – maybe she used Ieper and her editor got confused…

  31. Mike Briggs said,

    September 22, 2014 @ 6:19 am

    I always thought that Sweet Fairy Ann was euphemistic for Sweet Fuck All. Am I wrong?

  32. Keith said,

    September 22, 2014 @ 6:29 am


    When I was growing up, "Fanny Adams" was considered a bowlderisation of "Fuck All". I wasn't trying to say that "Fairy Anne" is necessarily related to this expression, but simply commenting on the possibility of using it in this way.

    Your comment about Ieper is good; I had not thought of that, but I doubt that an editor was involved. In fact, I really hope that an editor was not involved. Having read the rest of Winterton's post, I doubt that she even re-read her own text once before publishing it. She probably considers it ephermera not worth the time.

  33. Piyush said,

    September 22, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

    @Danny M:

    Thanks for putting in all the work, but I looked at your block of text before working it out :-). As a non-native speaker I learnt most of my English either by reading or conversing in formal contexts, so I doubt I would have been able to work out the right stresses required to get to the answer. (For example, the sounds "son" and "San" are completely irreconcilable for me).

  34. Keith said,

    September 22, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

    I also could not work out what San Ababís was supposed to be… As I remember it, Tagalog has fewer consonants and fewer vowels than English, and this would explain how the /tch/ sound at the end of "bitch" was transformed into /s/ and also how /son/ was transformed into /san/. The influence of Spanish would cause the association of /san/ with the word "San" meaning "Saint" leading to the inference that "San Ababís" was the patron saint of the USA.

  35. Terry Collmann said,

    September 22, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

    While KeefD is correct that schools in England and Wales now name classes beginning with Year 1, for pupils aged five, and secondary schooling starts with a class called Year 7, strangely, the last two years of secondary education, which concentrate on A Levels (the final exams leading – hopefully – to qualification for university), are still generally called Sixth Form, their old name, rather than Years 12 and 13.

  36. Paul Mulshine said,

    September 22, 2014 @ 9:27 pm

    Rube Said: My introduction to "mox nix" was when my friend had a pre-1955 VW Beetle which had those indicators that came out of the pillar and lit up, as opposed to modern turn signals, They were called "Mox nix sticks."

  37. Matthew McIrvin said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 9:45 am

    @Paul Mulshine: Wow, I had no idea such things even existed until now. They seem like classic examples of bad design.

    (The reason they were called "mox nix sticks" was that it was too easy to leave them sticking out unintentionally, making them useless as turn signals.)

  38. Chris said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 10:00 am

    Late to this party, but it's worth noting that famed blogger Andrew Sullivan discovered eggcorns recently and it has become a recurring feature.

  39. Colin Fine said,

    September 27, 2014 @ 8:52 am

    I've never encountered 'mox nix' before, though I have met the American word 'nix', from 'nichts'.

    Those indicators were termed 'semaphore signals' though I remember them under the trade name 'Trafficators'.

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