Conrad H. Roth, the learned and acerbic proprietor of Varieties of Unreligious Experience (and self-described “unmoored intellectual desperately seeking a thesis-topic”), has a post that brings to my attention an unusual slang term. After a discussion of “the old WW1 satirical journal, The Wipers Times” (Wipers being a jovial deformation of the name of the Belgian town Ypres), and quoting a nice quatrain by Gilbert Frankau, he concludes:

The Wipers texts, both prose and verse, are full of slang still vibrant and uncontained; a famous example is na poo or narpoo, from the French ‘il n’y a plus’, meaning ‘there’s none left’, or more generally, ‘no good’. Hence:

The privit to the sergeant said
“I wants my blooming rum.”
“Na poo,” the sergeant curtly said,
And sucked his jammy thumb.

Narpoo indeed. An example of a word dragging meaning into itself like a vortex, the finest moments of a popular vocabulary; compare ‘fuck’ now, or ‘quoz’ in the 1840s (for which see Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions, chapter 13).

The Cassell Dictionary of Slang lists it as:
napoo [1910s-40s] finished, ended.
The OED, in a June 2003 draft revision, says it’s “colloq. (orig. Army slang). Now rare” and includes two more recent citations:
1973 L. Meynell Thirteen Trumpeters v. 81 Prudence.. fell down dead in the croupier’s bag. Fini. Napoo.
1989 V. Scannell Soldiering On 54 Compree mon Kamerad? Jig-jig, parley-voo, Shufti zubrick, quois-kateer San fairy ann, napoo.
“Shufti” (from Arabic) is slang for ‘a glance, look’ and “San fairy ann” is evidently ça ne fait rien, but I have no idea what “zubrick” and “quois-kateer” might be. [Charles Perry in the comments solves the mystery: “‘Quois kateer’ is Arabic ‘kwayyis katiir,’ very good. It shows up in the chorus of an old Army song, ‘You’re my little Gyppo bint [Egyptian girl], you’re quois kateer.’ … ‘Zubrick’ (zubrak) I fear, means ‘your penis.'”]
And here‘s the online text of Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds (1841), courtesy of MetaFilter; if you’ve never encountered it, it’s well worth your while.


  1. aldiboronti says

    Another such term is “san fairy Ann” (ça ne fait rien). Quinion comments:
    “When the British Tommy arrived in France to fight in the First World War, he was presented with a language he struggled to make sense of. What he did to the pronunciation of French and Belgian place names is a wonder, such as turning Ypres into Wipers. He picked up a lot of French expressions, but he changed them into something that sounded English. This was the fate of ça ne fait rien, ‘it does not matter’, which became a British Army catchphrase in that war as an expression of resigned—or cynical—acceptance of some state of affairs, usually brought about by bungling officers.”
    It’s great to see Mackay referenced. A wonderful book. It’s available online in its entirety, the chapter on catchphrases that you mention being Popular Follies in Great Cities.

  2. Cryptic Ned says

    Maybe “Quois-kateer” is “Quoique dire”.

  3. Charles Perry says

    “Quois kateer” is Arabic “kwayyis katiir,” very good. It shows up in the chorus of an old Army song, “You’re my little Gyppo bint [Egyptian girl], you’re quois kateer.” Oddly, in Egyptian dialect that would be kwayyis qawi; katiir “very” is more characteristic of Syrian dialect.
    “Zubrick” (zubrak) I fear, means “your penis.” “Shufti” would ordinarily mean “you [2pfem] saw,” but in this context I assume the “i” is inserted to prevent a consonant cluster, and it means “I saw your penis,” a reasonably insulting thing to say.

  4. Charles Perry says

    Just Googled “quois bint” and found the name of the Squaddie song using “quois kateer,” “Sayida Bint.” The link doesn’t work but you can see the lyrics cached.

  5. Tommy Atkins went native when in Egwipe, shufi this and that, imshi that, the kids on the docks would teach the squaddies all the best terms.
    One time, flying back from Aden to UK, the two Stewardess’s announced on the tannoy, to the 25 resting, gasping representives of Hers Majesties, “When you gentlemen decide to speak the Queens English, we will serve Lunch.”

  6. Reminds me of the origin of kickshaw, which is quelque chose.

  7. Charles: Excellent detective work, thanks! Like Cryptic Ned, I was fooled by the superficial similarity of “quois” to French (and pronounced it /kwa/); clearly it’s meant to be /kwois/ and represents, as you say, Arabic kwayyis (and it is indeed curious that the squaddies picked up a Syrian term—perhaps in Palestine?).
    Noetica: Good comparison!

  8. Thanks for the link. My father says “shufti” in the phrase “have a shufti at [this]”, but I haven’t heard him use any of the other phrases; I wonder if this one has had a better legacy since the 40s. Actually, he’s a goldmine of odd slang; other words include “Horlicks” (“you’ve made a complete Horlicks of the job”–presumably after the hot drink of the same name–and the slang use seems to have had a general renaissance recently, following Jack Straw), “charlie” (fool–is this possibly from the Goon Show?), “spotty Herbert” (nerd), and the oddest of them, “norse” (as in, “I didn’t like the film… it was a bit of a norse”). Has anyone else had experience of these charming archaisms?

  9. Napoo may be “rare” today but these kinds of deformations do have a way of surviving in pockets. In my family in northern Holland several corrupted French words and phrases are still in use — growing up in the 1950s I was told they were survivals of the days of French occupation under Napoleon.

  10. Nahpoo turns up in the reasonably well-known WWI song “Goodbyee”:
    “Bon Soir, old thing! Cheerio! Chin-Chin,
    Nah-Poo, Toodle-oo, Goodbye-ee”

  11. Would there be any connection to the expression “yar boo sucks”?
    I remember reading it in novels about pre-war public school boys, but never knew what it meant, really.

  12. Cf Wah’s 1981 album Nah Poo! The Art Of Bluff

  13. Charles Perry says

    “Shufti” means “I (you) saw,” construed as a noun; “I’ll have a shufti” is parallel to “we’ll have a rendez-vous.”

  14. Don’t forget to take a butchers at other sites for ryming slang of the less fortunate members of the hoi polloi. then Imshi .

  15. I’m pretty sure ‘yar boo sucks’ (or yah boo sucks) is just a general expression of dismay or disapproval, as in ‘yaaaah, booooo, that sucks!!!’. That’s how I always interpreted it, anyway, maybe it has a more esoteric etymology in reality. I’m interested in where the expression ‘jig-jig’ comes from, I’ve encountered it before but can’t place the origin.

  16. xiaolongnu says

    Actually, Geraint (or anybody), what is the origin of “Chin-chin?” Having just watched “Withnail and I” I find myself wondering.

  17. xiaolongnu says

    Actually, although I know it’s poor form to follow up my own requests, I have found a reference indicating it’s from Chinese qing qing (presumably 請請?) I thought it would be way too colonial for the word to have a Chinese etymology, but from ‘bint’ to ‘napoo’ it seems like there’s no such thing as “too colonial.”
    It makes me think of the reasons why expatriates bring foreign words/phrases into their native speech. My experience of living as an expatriate in China (on and off 1988-present) has suggested to me that particular terms tend to make it into “Chinglish” as spoken by Anglophone foreigners. One that always struck me was ‘mafan’ (麻煩) which is so much more satisfying a way of describing a troublesome inconvenience than any English equivalent. Another is ‘chabuduo’ (差不多), ‘more or less’ or more literally ‘doesn’t miss by much.’ These phrases seemed consistently to make it into the English speech of bilingual Anglophones, where other phrases equally common in Mandarin didn’t seem to crop up in Chinglish so much.
    Anybody have any idea why this might be?

  18. Charles Perry says

    The Arabic word that slips into Westerners’ speech in the Levant is ya’ni: “it means.” It’s used as cover while your mental gears are turning, and I’ve always figured it’s caught on so well because sounds less clueless than “um” or “uh” (and lasts two morae) but less pedantic than “that is.”
    I’ve also heard Turks and even Greeks using it.

  19. ” expression ‘jig-jig’ comes from” one source; another bad expression used for old fashion asking for a sexual favour of one that be not of thy culture in the old Levant. That be where I doth ‘ear it first. Of course it has to have the content to go with it. It could also refer to a mouth full of Scotch in jigger, or it could refer to asking a damsel in disress to partake of that Gaelic rythym on hot potatoes.

  20. “san fairy Ann” ;there other versions of using SFA.
    Sweet fanny adams, or crude version be sweet **** all. i.e Nada:

  21. 16th century London had ‘gardyloo’, which was what people shouted before throwing their waste out the window onto the street below. It comes from ‘gardez l’eau’, I think.

  22. xiaolongnu: We certainly used both those phrases in Taiwan; another equally common one was Meiyou guanxi ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s nothing.’ One that I liked a lot but doesn’t seem to be adopted by foreigners is mamahuhu, which can mean either ‘vague, unclear’ or ‘not bad, so-so.’
    Thanks for bringing up “chin-chin”; I’ll do a post on it.

  23. Re. the napoo/shufti/jig-jig conversation, I was reminded of Grahme Greene’s ‘Travels With my Aunt.’

    ‘Ar take your money them times because you love me, you slip with me, you like jig-jig with Wordsworth … When you got nothing at all you come to Wordsworth and ar work for you and you love me and you like jig-jig …’

    Put in context, the titular English Aunt (Augusta) lives with the man she calls Wordsworth, a native of Sierra Leone. Though of a certain age, Augusta is distinctly more red-blooded than most who are her juniors by decades. Wordsworth is so deeply in love that he even becomes jealous of Augusta’s nephew: ‘You jig-jig with my bebi gel.’

    This book also contains references to the phrase ‘CTC:’ ‘But don’t let him ask you for a CTC,’ Augusta warns her nephew. ‘That is what they called any tip or gift in Sierra Leone when he was a boy during the war. The initials belonged to Cape to Cairo cigarettes which all the sailors handed out generously.’

    The equivalent of ‘backsheesh/buckshee.’

    Any fan of this site might find a book called ‘Hobson-Jobson’ interesting. (A fuller, though not complete, title is ‘Hobson-Jobson, a Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases.’) Originally published 1886, compiled/edited by Henry Yule and Arthur C. Burnell, it was up-dated in 1903 by … oh blast, someone whose name I can’t remember and I can’t find my copy at the moment. Grask? Something beginning with ‘G,’ I feel certain …

    Bless the cotton socks of all involved with this site. Chuffed to naffi breaks to have found it. Hadn’t had the best of days but this made everything tickety-boo!

  24. Any fan of this site might find a book called ‘Hobson-Jobson’ interesting.

    An old favorite of mine, and thus fairly often referenced on LH (cf. e.g. here and here). Glad you like the blog; stick around!

  25. From Eric Knight’s The Flying Yorkshireman (1942):

    And he stayed stuck — all that day, and all the next, and the day after
    that. And all the time the horrible date was drawing nearer when — as Sam
    could tell by all the terrible German efficiency — England was to be
    ausgestruckensunkenstunkenstrafenschamacked. Which means it was to be
    napoo, fini, conked!

    Much of the dialogue in the book is in Yorkshire dialect, or a conventional (but presumably accurate) representation of it.

  26. marie-lucie says

    Most commenters on the French elements in this soldier slang compare them to Standard French words and phrases, making the derivation problematic from the phonological point of view. With few exceptions, I think that they are adapted from local, informal or substandard pronunciations likely to have been heard by soldiers in their interactions with local inhabitants.

    The Wipers Times” (Wipers being a jovial deformation of the name of the Belgian town Ypres
    What he [the British Tommy] did to the pronunciation of French and Belgian place names is a wonder, such as turning Ypres into Wipers
    Tommy Atkins went native when in Egwipe

    In these cases, the Britons did not alter the pronunciation, they attempted to make sense of the “y” in such exotic words. Also, Wipers was easier to say for English speakers than [ipr].

    na poo or narpoo, from French ‘il n’y a plus’, meaning ‘there’s none left’

    After asking for something, the formal answer corresponding to ‘there is none left’ or ‘there isn’t any left’ would be Il n’y en a plus, with liaison introducing the sound [n] between en and a (“il n’y a plus” is incomplete). Informal French says y en [n] a plus, but some local, substandard pronunciations say [nnapy], which must be the source of na poo.

    “San fairy ann” is evidently ça ne fait rien

    Here I suspect that this was picked up from people who had learned Standard French, perhaps officers, and enunciated very carefully. Colloquial French says ça fait rien (already current at the time).

    Maybe “Quois-kateer” is “Quoique dire”.

    Setting aside the documented Arabic origin, there would be no way to introduce an [s] within the suggested French phrase. But “Quoique dire” cannot be a French sequence. Quoique means ‘although’, and dire ‘to say’, and the combination is not possible in French. Quoi que is indeed a French sequence, but it belongs to a rather formal register. It is only found in sentences such as Quoi que vous disiez … ‘Whatever you might say’, where the verb has to be in the subjunctive mood, of course preceded by the relevant personal pronoun.

    the origin of kickshaw, which is quelque chose.

    Rather, the very colloquial quèqu’ chose.

  27. With the final /s/ removed because in English it sounded like the plural ending, the same process that gave us pea and cherry.

  28. In my family in northern Holland several corrupted French words and phrases are still in use — growing up in the 1950s I was told they were survivals of the days of French occupation under Napoleon.

    Also in De Volkskrant, “People’s Courant,” a major Dutch newspaper. Cf. Hartford Courant, said to be the oldest continuously published newspaper in the United States but challenged by the Quebec (City) Chronicle-Telegraph, which claims to be the oldest surviving newspaper in North America.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Also in De Volkskrant, “People’s Courant,” a major Dutch newspaper.

    Ah, that makes sense. 🙂 I could never shake off the association to German Grant, “grumpiness”, suggesting the people grumbles but can’t muster actual wrath, so there won’t be mobs with torches & pitchforks, just unending complaints; of course that would be phonologically untenable, and I knew it, but wouldn’t it be beautiful.

  30. And for years I looked at the paper’s nameplate and read “The People’s Rant,” somehow skipping over the second K.

  31. David Marjanović says

    …Not bad either! 😀

  32. The etymology of rant is obscure, but apparently it was originally applied to the wild dancing of certain ultra-Protestant groups, and only later to their impassioned preaching.

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