“You think I know f*** nothing?”

Toward the end of Nicholas Monsarrat’s World War II novel The Cruel Sea we find the frigate Saltash in charge of a convoy delivering supplies to the Soviet port of Murmansk, far above the Arctic Circle. The Russians are suspicious and resentful of their British allies who, as they see it, have been shirking their fair share of the war effort – hunkering down behind the Channel, postponing their promised invasion of France, while the Red Army fights a desperate defensive war.

These resentments bubble over in a shouting match between First Lieutenant Lockhart and a Russian interpreter. The fight ends on a farcical note:

At the head of the gangway [the interpreter] turned, for a final blistering farewell.

“You English,” he said, in thunderous accents and with extraordinary venom, “think we know damn nothing – but I tell you we know damn all.”

For a novel published in 1951, The Cruel Sea is rather more forthright than I was expecting. Death and mutilation are unflinchingly described, and prostitution, abortion, and venereal disease come up for discussion – albeit in language much less salty than real-life seamen were likely to have used.

While overall this linguistic propriety scarcely handicaps the novel, it struck me that the scene with the Russian would have been more effective if Monsarrat had been permitted fuller access to the vernacular – as David Niven enjoyed, a quarter century later, when he used the exact same gag in his Hollywood memoir Bring On The Empty Horses. The title derives from a supposed incident on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade:

Mike Curtiz was the director of The Charge and his Hungarian-oriented English was a source of joy to us all.

High on a rostrum he decided that the right moment had come to order the arrival on the scene of a hundred head of riderless chargers. “Okay!” he yelled into a megaphone. “Bring on the empty horses!”

[Errol] Flynn and I doubled up with laughter. “You lousy bums,” Curtiz shouted, “you and your stinking language…you think I know fuck nothing…well, let me tell you – I know FUCK ALL!”

It’s possible that Niven – who had no compunctions about rustling a stray anecdote and passing it off as his own – swiped this line from Monsarrat’s novel. It’s somewhat less likely (but still in the realm of possibility) that Michael Curtiz really was the originator of the “I know fuck all” gaffe, on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1936, and the punchline made its way across the Atlantic to Monsarrat’s ears.

Far likelier, the tale was floating around the British military during the war, and Monsarrat (Lt. Cdr., Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) and Niven (Lt. Col., British Army) independently heard it and stored it away for later use.

***

I shouldn’t single David Niven out for scorn; he just happens to be associated with the most famous version of the anecdote. A Google search reveals that it’s been recycled any number of times, and the verbal flub attributed to any number of funny-talking foreigners.

(By the way, I mistakenly assumed that “fuck nothing / fuck all” was the “authentic” version, and “damn nothing / damn all” a weak-tea substitute; but the latter seems to be the one more commonly reported by speakers of British English.)

In this biography of Sidney Poitier, the quote is put in the mouth of Hungarian director Zoltan Korda.

In a British humour book called Funny Shaped Balls the setting is a football match between England and Scotland, overseen by an exasperated Hungarian referee.

In this article credit is given to yet another Hungarian, conductor Georg Solti

…However, the Rough Guide to Classical Music assigns it to conductor Ernest Ansermet, a French-speaking Swiss.

The line is spoken by an Arab officer in a 1967 British theatrical farce called Bang Bang Beirut (…which it somehow pleases me to see was being performed as recently as 2017, at a high school in Austin, Texas).

This old British sailor claims to have heard it in the sixties from a Calcutta dock supervisor with a “sing song Indian accent”.

In a recent memoir by an American Air Force veteran, it’s delivered by a German guard in a WWII POW camp…

…But that Yank airman was beaten to it by a one-legged RAF POW who got his version of the story into print way back in 1957.

…The “unnamed German POW camp guard” attribution seems to be the most frequent; I can’t link to them all. I will single out the commenter on this blog who mistakenly remembers the line occurring somewhere in The Great Escape.

Who knows where the anecdote originated. Its appearance in The Cruel Sea is the earliest I’ve found; however, that may simply be because much before 1951, “damn all” (let alone “fuck all”) would’ve been considered pretty racy. The joke may have circulated for many years, without leaving a trace on the printed language, before Monsarrat seized on it.

M.

PS. Here’s a discussion of the origins of the expression “fuck all” and its variants, claiming that the horrific murder of the English girl Fanny Adams in 1867 inspired a morbid sailor’s joke comparing their unappetizing meat rations to the girl’s remains – later abbreviated to “sweet F.A.” – later misunderstood to denote “sweet fuck all”.

The Phrase Finder, however, claims that “fuck all” predates “Fanny Adams” and that the two phrases were conflated sometime between Fanny’s murder and World War I.

In a post last year that attempted to answer the question “Why read?” I quoted some other dubious David Niven anecdotes from Bring On The Empty Horses. On a related note, here’s Nevil Shute being told by the publishers of his first novel, in 1926, to replace every instance of the word “bloody” with “ruddy”.

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