My wife is addicted to British television chef Gordon Ramsay, whose overuse of the word “fuck” has resulted in him donating all profits made from his show, The F-Word, to a Tourette Syndrome charity. Of course, the show’s title is a double-entendre on the words “food” and “fuck,” and so obvious I wasn’t sure I needed to even mention it.
There’s no doubt that Gordon leverages his use of the word to maintain a certain notoriety, which is turn translates into celebrity, and ultimately into profits. Now there’s magic for you – creating gold from using curse words! If only we could all learn that trick…
Gordon’s obsession with the F-word now includes another; fanny. In 2007, Ramsay introduced a competition to find a new female celebrity cook, someone, he said, to fill the shoes of one of the UK’s earliest cooking icons, Fanny Cradock. In the late 1950’s, Cradock was a regular on TV with her cooking shows, which ran through until 1976.
Thus was born – ostensibly – the Find Me A Fanny contest.
Now, it doesn’t take a linguist to work out that this is another double entendre, as fanny is also British English slang for the female genitals. Its etymology is unknown and makes its debut in 1879 in Early English Poems and Lives of Saints; “You shan’t look at my fanny for nothing.” Using fanny to then refer to the whole woman is an example of synecdoche – using a part to refer to a whole.
Staying below the belt but reversing the orientation, folks in the US use the word fanny to refer to the backside or ass. The OED gives the first such reference as being in Hecht and McArthur’s 1928 The Front Page with the quote; “Parking her fanny in here.” Noel Coward, an English playwright, used it in the American sense in his 1930’s play, Private Lives: “You’d fallen on your fanny a few moment before.”
The fanny pack in the US is a holdall that is worn at the waist and is supposed to hang behind near your fanny. However, many folks seem to wear it anatomically closer to the UK definition.
The word is also used in a nautical sense to refer to a tin that holds anything drinkable. In Hackforth-Jones’ Fair Trade (1952) we find the sentence, “Send a fanny full of hot tea while you are about it. ” In this case, clearly the anatomical references make no sense.
It has also come to be used as a verb in the sense of using glib talk to deceive someone, or to indicate procrastination or avoidance. “Stop fannying about” is a phrase that might be heard in the UK.
Fanny also exists as a girl’s name, which it is suggested derives from Francis meaning “from France.” The name precedes the use of fanny for the female vulva so this may be a possible origin although there is no evidence to link the two.
Interestingly, this nominative use of fanny is the root of the phrase “sweet Fanny Adams” meaning “nothing at all.” It derives from Fanny Adams, a girl who was murdered in 1867 and her body cut into pieces before being scattered. She was butchered to the point that “nothing was left” of her, hence the eponymous phrase. By 1889, sailors were using Fanny Adams to refer to canned meat – which is more indicative of the sense of humor present at the time.
The use of the phrase “sweet FA” as a euphemism for “sweet fuck all” comes later than “sweet Fanny Adams,” which suggests that the folk etymology suggesting “sweet Fanny Adams” is a bowdlerized form (or euphemism) for “sweet fuck all” actually has it backwards – Fanny Adams came first.