Saturday, 4 June 2011

San Fairy Ann

Do you know what it means?

The answer to that question, if you're U.K.-based, is probably generational. "San Fairy Ann" is an expression that was born out of a gap in the English language, so what are its origins and potential meanings?

British soldiers in World War One soon found out their French counterparts had a phrase that resembled "it doesn't matter" but that sounded much more satisfying, dismissing a problem out of hand. The expression was "Ça ne fait rien" and was anglicised into "San Fairy Ann". Google searches for the term often focus on this origin, labelling it "soldier slang". However, its use became far more widespread than that.

After the war, solders' return to civvy street meant that "San Fairy Ann" entered the general vernacular. For me it brings to mind my Nan's visits when I was a young child, as she shrugged off her own frailties. My parents, meanwhile, still come out with it on occasion. As for myself, I understand it but rarely use it. In other words, my family is an example of how an expression entered the language, took hold in a generation and then gradually slipped away, how English is constantly evolving and sifting words in an ongoing process of selection. We can treasure "San Fairy Ann" for all it represents in terms of personal and social histories, but also relish the continuing shared creativity which leads us towards new expressions on a daily basis.

"Inventing Truth", my Happenstance pamphlet, features the following poem:

San Fairy Ann

Wit amid blood and Belgian mud,
Nan invoked you daily. Your time
on our tongues and in dictionaries
might be running out, but I've passed
your syllables on to my son
in return for his slang from school.

6 comments:

  1. Just for the record - I didn't know the phrase. I have heard of San Francisco, etc, and first guessed that the title was a child's corruption of San Farian, some Saint I'd never heard of. The title's easy to look up though so I don't think it's a problem nowadays.

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  2. Tthis was an expression i came across on meeting an ex British WW2 submariner in the 1960/1970 era.

    He used it a lot. I queried him on what it meant. He shrugged his shoulders and said it was a phrase he picked up in Malta during the WW2 age.

    Possibly there is a connection between

    san fairy ann

    ca fait ne rien

    sweet fuck all

    sfa

    cheers.

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  3. It's also used in the film Photographing Fairies as the answer to the Toast "Ish Ka Bibble" which isn't Yiddish but is supposed to be, the meaning which is roughly translated to be "why should I Worry?"

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  4. This saying was used by my mother whose father had served in France during the first world war. I was pleased to hear it as it usually meant that my misdemenour was being overlooked.

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  5. Iremember my father using it when I was a boy in the 60s

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  6. My Nan and mom used it. Both " Brummies " Nan lived in Harbourne,Birmingham.. my mom Canada. Virginiatown Ontario and Victoria bc. I just thought it was another British slang ( guess it is) didn't know it was really "french" till I watched Heartbeat "

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