meaning and origin of the British phrase ‘nul points’

 

brotherhood-of-man-featured-on-top-ten-eurovision-the-stage-13-april-2000

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, England) of Thursday 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 expression nul points is first recorded in The Incomplete Book of Failures: The Official Handbook of the Not-Terribly-Good Club of Great Britain (E. P. Dutton – New York, 1979), by Stephen Pile (born 1949):

Singing an entrancingly drab number called ‘Mile after Mile,’ a Norwegian pop singer, Mr Jan Teigan1scored nil in the 1978 Eurovision Song Contest. The voting from the panels all over Europe was unanimous:
‘Norway    — no points
                 — nul points
                 — keine Pünkte’

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

The earliest instance that I have found of nul points used in its literal sense is from Instant assessments: Nancy Banks-Smith reviews Brian Walden, Michael Foot and the Eurovision Song Contest, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Monday 26th April 1982:

Last year Norway scored the prestigious “nul points” in the Eurovision song contest (BBC-1) with a stirring song about revolting Lapps. This year it was their neighbour Finland who won the coveted Bums Rush with a rousing ditty Nuku Pommiin: “Don’t drop. Bomb out. Don’t drop. Bomb out. Don’t you drop that neutron bomb on me.”

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 instances of that transferred use that I have found are from Back in the old cattle-market, a review of the Miss World Contest, by Julian Barnes, published in The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 20th November 1983:

This year’s presentation was updated, i.e., made worse, by the introduction of a computer. […]
Some courteous piece of punched tape inside the machine obviously stopped any girl actually receiving a Eurovision Song Contest nul point; but even so, four girls registered a belittling single point out of a possible 36. One of these, Miss Liberia, was later awarded one of the five new subsidiary titles up for grabs—African Queen of Beauty. Hard not to read this as a cack-eyed [sic] slur on the assembled womanhood of the dark continent.
But then the judges (two token women plus seven tacky men) looked pretty much of a Berni Inn2 brigade, mired in Eurocentricity. As they were introduced to us, the men registered a resounding nul point for face and figure on my wife’s personal computer.

(2 Berni Inn: a chain of British steakhouses)

The second-earliest instance of the transferred use that I have found is from the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Friday 3rd May 1985—the expression nul points is used of the Eurovision Song Contest itself, not of a song:

Roy West, TV Editor, asks: Is it time to pull the plug on the Euro-song bore?
Sing a song of Europe. But who wants it?

Apart from who is going to win, one other big question hangs over the Eurovision Song Contest . . . Who wants it?
John Lennon once called it a middle-of-the-road musical orgy for Mums and Dads which has nothing to do with pop music.
Others have been less kind. And now as we face up to the ballyhoo of the 29th year, one thing is clear. The contest rates the same fate that traditionally awaited Norway . . . nul points.

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