Friday 1 January 2010

That's All She Wrote

Today Mrs Malaprop told me, on the subject of business, that she had written to somebody. I thought that this was quaint if not quixotic. I didn't think that business people wrote letters anymore, unless they had some legal significance like a summons or a demand for payment. It turned out that she had meant e-mail, a term that she not only doesn't hyphenate but also, it turns out, refuses to use as a verb.

Wrote, to me at least, always means a letter on paper enveloped in an envelope. I wasn't sure whether this misunderstanding was due to my peculiarity or Mrs Malaprop's so this evening I did some extensive research on a representative section of the British public and she agreed with me: writing means letters. Texts are texted, e-mails e-mailed: writing is a paper-and-ink business. (Oddly, one can write a song without jotting down a single word or note).

Whilst on the subject of the word wrote, there is an American expression, "That's all she wrote", which means nothing to an Englishman. In The River by Bruce Springsteen there's this line:

And I got Mary pregnant and, man, that was all she wrote

Hank Williams recorded a song called Dear John with the refrain:

And that's all she wrote, Dear John,
I've sent your saddle home.

All of this comes from a joke current among American soldiers during the Second World War. GIs used to get dumped a lot by their sweethearts back home. The dumping was usually epistolary and often lapidary. The joke runs that there are three soldiers comparing such letters. The first soldier describes the letter he got which was only a couple of lines long. The second soldier says that his was one line long: "Dear Jim, It's over". The third soldier replies that his letter went "Dear John" and that's all she wrote.
This joke, though not noticeably amusing, was so popular that "all she wrote" became a phrase meaning "to get bad news from a woman".
I went for years misunderstanding that Bruce Springsteen song.

Obscure phraseology


  1. "Goodbye, that's all she wrote" is also the last line of 'Jackson', as recorded by Cash/Carter, Nancy Sinatra/Hazlewood etc.

  2. I knew I was missing one of them.

  3. Over here on this side of the Atlantic, I can tell you that "That's all she wrote," is used a lot more broadly than you explain here. It simply is used as "that's all there is to it. There's nothing more to say." or "That which just transpired is conclusive."

    "It's a goal by Rooney here in injury time to stretch the margin to 2-0, and that's all she wrote."

  4. When I give all our dogs a treat,I say that's all she wrote then they walk off knowing that's all the treats they get at this time.

  5. It sounds like that joke also may have spawned the notion of a “Dear John letter.”

  6. Pre-WWII usage examples cited here: