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Mar 08

That’s all she wrote?

Ever catch yourself writing or speaking to someone, mention a catch phrase or idiomatic string of words, and wonder, “Will they know what that means?” Since my Daddy is from the south I’ve heard all manner of southern phrases from him that when repeated (instinctively) by me leave numerous Yankees with a puzzled look on their phrases.

Here is a perfect example: Today I typed “That’s All She Wrote!” in an e-mail response to a colleague. Considering the fact this was mentioned in a note to a New Englander of Brazilian descent, I thought perhaps I’d better research that phrase for the inevitable, “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” [remember that one?]

Here is what I discovered at Word-Detective.Com:

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase, “…and that was all she wrote?” Who was “she,” and why did she decide or have to stop writing? Was it some Jane Austen/Emily Dickinson why-do-I-have-to-call-myself-George-Eliot-just-to-get-published type of pre-Women’s Suffrage male oppression deal? It’s puzzled me for years. — Melanie Waddell, Bethpage, New York.

You and me both, and everybody else to boot. The origin of “That’s all she wrote” (which is how it’s usually phrased) is a subject of considerable debate, although the male oppression angle you suspect is almost certainly off the mark. Most theories about “That’s all she wrote” actually leave men holding the short end of the stick.

“That’s all she wrote” is a catch phrase, a kind of popular saying that probably began in reference to a particular situation or was drawn from a specific joke or other context, but which has since taken on a life of its own and is used in a variety of contexts. When we say “That’s all she wrote” today, we mean “that’s all there is” or “that’s the end of it.”

The standard theory about “That’s all she wrote” is that it arose during World War II and refers to the “Dear John letters” received by many servicemen from their sweethearts back home bluntly announcing the end of their relationships. Such letters were so common during the war that “That’s all she wrote” may have originally been the punch line to a joke: a GI (in some versions, not even named John) receives a letter containing only the salutation “Dear John,” with the “It’s over” part left unwritten and implicit. When questioned by his buddies about the rest of the letter’s contents, he replies, “That’s all she wrote.”

When my colleague William Safire explored that theory in print a few years ago, however, he received several letters suggesting that the phrase may have come from a variety of popular American songs about brides abandoned at the altar, or men dumped by their sweethearts. The rupture was invariably communicated by a terse note, leading to the refrain “And that’s all she (or he) wrote.” Unfortunately, no one has yet managed to pin down the exact song in which the phrase occurs, so the jury is still out on “That’s all she wrote.”

Interesting, eh? So the next time you spew a similar phrase . . . consider not only the source but also the recipient!

~SP

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