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That’s all she wrote

Q From Nicholas Brandes: I couldn’t find anything specific about that’s all she wrote except that it might have a World War Two epistolary basis. Do you know anything definite?

A You want “definite”? With etymology, it’s often difficult even to get as far as “vague”. As it happens, it’s easy to come to a firm conclusion about this one, so long as you fall in with the majority view. However, I’m always suspicious of the majority view and — as we shall see — it turns out to be wrong.

Let’s be clear to start with what the expression means. It always has an implication of finality about it, though it can be variously translated as “that’s all there is”, “it’s finished”, “it’s over”, “there’s no more”, “that’s enough”:

When it starts to get really dark — when the sky goes from blue to purple — I’m flipping back. That’s it; that’s all she wrote. I’m not walking through these woods after dark.

The Talisman, by Stephen King, 1984.

Skipper Tom meowing and hopping around like he had the itch. Then dumped a load of cat crap all over a lobster trap. Jack threw it overboard to rinse it, and that’s all she wrote buddy, he was jerked into the water.

The Shipping News, by E Annie Proulx, 1993.

When I first came across it (it’s not well known in the UK), I was puzzled by it. On the one hand it was obvious enough what it meant but why should anybody drag in a reference to an anonymous woman writer?

If you search the reference books for the answer, you’ll probably come across the story that you mention, that it’s from a bitter joke of the Second World War. An American serviceman opens a letter from his wife or girlfriend and starts to read it to his mates: “Dear John”. He stops. “Well, go on,” his listeners urge him, “read us the rest of it.” “I can’t,” he replies, “that’s all she wrote.”

Dumping letters were common enough to have been given the Dear John letter epithet at the time, though it starts to appear in the record only in 1945. It’s a nice story, but it’s a pity about the absence of any contemporary evidence for it, such as somebody on record as telling the joke or referring to it.

The cover of a sheet music collection by Ernest Tubb
The Ernest Tubb collection of
1942 that contains the song

Another suggestion is that that’s all she wrote comes from the words of a popular song, perhaps one that linked Dear John to it. A song by Aubry Gass and Tex Ritter, written in 1950, the same year Hank Williams recorded it, has the line: “And that’s all she wrote, Dear John”. That arrived on the scene too late to be the origin. In 1946, George Crawford penned That’s All She Wrote, ’Cause the Pencil Broke, though similarly the dating confirms the title came from the existing saying. But there’s an earlier one.

Michael Templeton has found a song by Ernest Tubb, dubbed the Texas Troubadour, who was a pioneer of country music on radio from the late 1930s. His song was entitled That’s All She Wrote and appeared in a sheet music collection that was published by the American Music Inc of Hollywood in 1942. He also found this:

“That’s all she wrote!” gleefully called out a fan, before crossing the pit to collect a fifty-dollar bet.

Cock Fighting in Florida by Edward Jerome Voghler, in American Mercury, April 1942.

Garson O’Toole has since found three examples of that’s all she wrote in the Atlanta Daily World from June and August 1942. As all these examples derive from civilian contexts, the prevailing view that the idiom is from servicemen being dumped by Dear John letters is no longer sustainable. My guess is that the immediate source will turn out to be Ernest Tubb’s song, which surely must have been performed on radio before 1942 and which probably popularised it.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 Mar. 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 5 March 2011.