Q&A: “Nothing to write home about”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we're discussing things to write home about…

Q: Hi AWC, how has your week been?

A: Pretty good. And yours?

Q: Nothing to write home about…

A: Oh, um, okay.

Q: That’s actually what I wanted to discuss today. Where did the phrase “nothing to write home about” come from?

A: It originated in the British seaside town of Blackpool before they built the famous pier and promenade. People would go on holiday there but literally have nothing to write home about, due to the lack of amusements.

Q: Wow, really?

A: No, sorry. We made that up.

Q: Ugh, I hate you. Can you tell me the real origin?

A: Sure. “Nothing to write home about” is of course an idiom that means that something is unremarkable or ordinary. For example, you might say that a new restaurant “is nothing to write home about” if you didn’t think it was anything special.

Q: Yes, I’ve heard bad things about that place.

A: Um okay. But actually, we only ended up with “nothing to write home about” after we first had something to write home about.

Q: How so?

A: “To write home about” was a boastful phrase that first appeared in the US around 1860, and was often used in advertising through into the early 20th century. E.g. “This sale is a thing worth writing home about.” This usage has all but died out today.

Q: So when did the “nothing” version appear?

A: It may have been in use in the late 1800s, but the first written record is from North America in 1905 – in describing the mediocre performance of a baseball team. Despite popular theories, there is no evidence that it was first used by soldiers in the late 1800s.

Q: But World War I was just around the corner – so did it take off there?

A: Yes, it appears that sitting in cold, freezing trenches for months on end were precisely the right conditions with which to have “nothing to write home about” – literally and figuratively.

Q: How strange that the figurative meaning was in place already before widespread use of the literal during the war.

A: Yes, that’s a good point – as it’s usually the other way around with idioms. That said, even these days, it’s sometimes still used in a semi-literal sense.

Q: Example?

A:. You might visit a new place in your travels and when asked about it, you’d say that it was nothing to write home about. If you did like it, maybe you would have sent a postcard from that place.

Q: What’s a postcard?

A: Sigh… Never mind.

Q: Anyway, most of the time these days, it’s figurative usage, yes?

A: That’s right. So a movie might be “nothing to write home about” or a book, a concert… or even this conversation.

Q: I think that’s my cue to sign off…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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