Q: During World War II, my soldier brother used to say “san fairy duckboard” instead of “san fairy ann” when he meant “it doesn’t matter.” I asked him once why he replaced “ann” with “duckboard,” and he said duckboards were everywhere in the army. Do you have any information about this usage?
A: The expression “san fairy ann,” meaning “it doesn’t matter” or “it’s nothing” or “never mind,” originated as a World War I infantryman’s version of the French phrase ça ne fait rien.
And “duckboard,” another WWI term, was what soldiers called the slatted flooring placed in muddy trenches and camps.
We haven’t found a single published example that combines the terms into “san fairy duckboard,” but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t used in speech by the American doughboys, British Tommies, Australian diggers, and other English speakers who fought in the war.
And assuming they used the phrase, we can guess what it meant—something like “it doesn’t mean duckboard” or “it’s not worth duckboard” or “it doesn’t matter any more than duckboard.” In such an expression, “duckboard” could have been a euphemistic substitute for an obscenity.
We do know that another word familiar from trench warfare, “sandbag,” was merged with “san fairy ann.” The phrase “sandbag Mary Ann” was used as a variation on “san fairy ann.” Well, the French used by English-speaking soldiers may have been wanting, but their English was certainly inventive.
The OED’s entry for “san fairy ann” calls it a “jocular form representing French ça ne fait rien ‘it does not matter,’ said to have originated in army use in the war of 1914–18.” The dictionary defines it as “an expression of indifference to, or resigned acceptance of, a state of affairs.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation for the phrase, spelled somewhat differently, is from Walter Hubert Downing’s Digger Dialects (1919), a collection of Australian soldier slang: “San ferry ann … it doesn’t matter.”
As for “duckboard,” the OED says that during WWI it was used, generally in the plural, to mean “a slatted timber path laid down on wet or muddy ground in the trenches or in camps.”
The dictionary’s earliest use is from a British wartime magazine: “Walking wounded are helped along the duck-boards that flank the light railways.” (The War Illustrated, March 17, 1917.)
In short, soldiers familiar with both “san fairy ann” and “duckboard” may very well have combined the expressions, even though we can’t point to a published example.
The original “san fairy ann” has had many variants, according to findings in the OED as well as our own researches. The first element can be “san” or “son”; the second “fairy,” “faery,” or “ferry”; and the third “Ann,” “Anne,” “Anna,” “Han,” or “Aunt.”
It’s also been mushed together as “sanfairyann” and “sanferriens.” And besides the aforementioned “Sandbag Mary Ann,” we’ve seen “Sally fair Ann,” “Aunt Mary Ann,” and “Send for Mary Ann.” Finally, as the OED says, it’s been shortened to the simple “Fairy Ann.”
While “san fairy ann” originated during WWI and was mostly used a century ago, it survived into the WWII era and beyond, according to the dictionary’s citations.
The OED includes a 1956 example from a story by the novelist Frederick B. Vickers, who served in the Australian armed forces during WWII. We’ll quote a slightly different part of the passage to clarify the speaker’s meaning: “ ‘Don’t mention it, Joe,’ I said. … ‘San ferry ann, Joe.’ ” (From “Make Like You,” published in the story collection Coast to Coast, 1956.)
And this example, also cited in the OED, is from a British novel: “ ‘I wish you’d thought of my ulcer before you—’ he began, and then broke off. ‘Oh, san fairy anne!’ ” (It’s a Free Country, 1965, by Leonard Brain.)
Finally, Oxford quotes a 1970s newspaper advertisement: “San fairy Ann. … It doesn’t matter to us.” (The Times, London, June 22, 1973.)