meaning and origin of the British phrase ‘nul points’



Seventies spectacle – Brotherhood of Man featured on Channel 4’s Top Ten – Eurovision

There was once a time when it [= the Eurovision Song Contest], along with Miss World and the FA Cup Final, formed part of an annual must-see television triumvirate. The only people who did not watch it were social deviants — people without TV sets and lighthouse keepers who could not get a signal.
I was therefore delighted to see the contest receive the serious retrospective it deserves courtesy of Top Ten – Eurovision (C4, Saturday, April 1, 8.55pm). With a wealth of precious archive footage upon which to draw, most of it tortuously embarrassing, the programme enjoyed a veritable field day. Songs: nul points, clothes: nul points, style: nul points — but for sheer hideous spectacle alone, this had to be the most entertaining show of the week.

from Frightening vision of pop’s monstrosities, by Harry Venning, published in The Stage (London) of 13th April 2000



In British English, the humorous expression nul points was originally used with reference to a score of zero points in the Eurovision Song Contest, in which the points awarded by each country are announced in both English and French.

This British expression is composed of the French adjective nul, meaning no, that is, not one, and of the French masculine noun points, plural of point, point, mark. The form nul point has also been used.

In French, nul points is incorrect, as the adjective nul agrees in number with the noun that it qualifies; the French expression is therefore either nuls points or nul point. Besides, nul(s) point(s) is formal French; pas de point(s) and aucun point are more commonly used.

Additionally, it is said that scores of zero are not in fact announced in this way during the Eurovision Song Contest, but I could not find how, or if, those scores are, or were, actually read out.

The British expression first appeared in The Incomplete Book of Failures: The Official Handbook of the Not-Terribly-Good Club of Great Britain (1979), by Stephen Pile (born 1949):

Singing an entrancingly drab number called ‘Mile after Mile,’ a Norwegian pop singer, Mr Jan Teigan¹, scored nil in the 1978 Eurovision Song Contest. The voting from the panels all over Europe was unanimous:
‘Norway  — no points
                 — nul points
                 — keine Pünkte’

The expression has come to mean no points scored in any context, especially as a hypothetical mark awarded for a failure or a dismal performance. The earliest of these allusive uses that I could find is from Pat Moore’s It has to be Them or Us, a television review published in The Stage (London) of 19th December 1991:

With only a fortnight to go to 1992 and a certain influx of F-for-foreign-flavoured television series, viewers should be mugging up on at-a-glance differences between Them and Us. For full enjoyment.
This avoids frantic scrabblings for the newspaper to see where the thing is set, or those yes-it-is-no-it-isn’t mutterings which almost drown the tearing of toffee wrappers in my local cinema.
Armed with this instant Identikit technique, the cognoscenti can spot Brother Frog from Brothers Franco and Fritz in a flash. Long before a long loaf, a vest or a lederhosen have appeared on the screen.
It also enables one to look ineffably smugly at one’s pals as you show the holiday snaps of That Very Location with the cocoa later on.
However, to our sheep (as the French have it²). Last week’s Continental goodie was Red Fox (Sunday, ITV 7.55), the first episode in a spiffing two-part tale by former foreign correspondent Gerald Seymour and set, yes, in France. Did you guess this from a) the chap gabbling on the car radio, b) because Brian Cox was driving on the wrong side of the road, or c) the subtitles (nul point)?

The following is from the column Television Diary, published in The Stage of 30th January 1992:

Arena gets nul points for raising our Euro hopes

The BBC’s arts documentary series Arena kicked off again this week and what a load of treats they have got in store for us.
Imagine our delight when we spied, in the glossy publicity blurb, The Eurovision Song Contest, a firm favourite with The Diary for many a year.
“As French as Gauloises, as Italian as the Colosseum, as German as an autobahn and yet as Euro as the ECU [= European currency unit] — even the Brits abandon their splendid isolation for this annual excursion to Euroland.
“Norvege nul points³”, Katie Boyle, All Kinds of Everything, the arrival of ABBA, lederhosen and castanets combine to make music an international language that brings us all closer together” said the press release. As its contribution to the ideals of 1992, Arena plans to lift the lid on this Eurocopia. But imagine, if you will, our deep distress when on telephoning the press office we discovered that the programme has not even gone into production yet and we may have to wait a whole year to see it on our screens.
How cruel of them to set us on such a roller coaster of emotions, but, as they say, that’s television for you.


¹ Jahn Teigen (born 1949) is a Norwegian singer, musician and comedian; the Norwegian title of the song was Mil Etter Mil.


² To return to one’s sheep, from French retourner à ses moutons, means: to return to the matter in hand.


³ Norvege: i.e. Norvège, the French form of Norway; this country received no points in the 1978 and 1981 Eurovision Song Contests. It came last eleven times, in 1963, 1969, 1974, 1976, 1978, 1981, 1990, 1997, 2001, 2004 and 2012, but won in 1985, 1995 and 2009.


⁴ The British actress and television hostess Katie Boyle (born 1926) presented the Eurovision Song Contest during the 1960s and 1970s.


⁵ All Kinds of Everything, performed by the Irish singer Dana (born Rosemary Brown in 1951), won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970.


⁶ Eurocopia: wordplay on cornucopia, a symbol of plenty consisting of a goat’s horn overflowing with flowers, fruit and corn.

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