‘nul points’: meanings and origin

The primary meaning of the humorous pseudo-French British-English expression nul points is: 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 expression is composed of:
– the French adjective nul, meaning no (that is, not one); the choice of this French adjective was perhaps influenced by the English adjective nil;
– the French masculine noun points, plural of point, meaning point, mark.

In French, nul points is incorrect, as the adjective nul agrees in number with the noun that it qualifies; the French expression would therefore be either nuls points or nul point. (However, the British-English expression has also occurred as nuls points and nul point.)

Besides, nul(s) point(s) is formal French; pas de point(s) and aucun point are more commonly used.

Additionally, it seems that, in the Eurovision Song Contest, scores of zero are in fact announced as zero points.

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences that I have found of the literal uses of the expression nul points:

1-: From The Incomplete Book of Failures: The Official Handbook of the Not-Terribly-Good Club of Great Britain (New York: E. P. Dutton, 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 Pünkte2

1 Jahn Teigen (1949-2020) was a Norwegian singer, musician and comedian; the Norwegian title of the song was Mil Etter Mil.
2 German keine Punkte translates as no points. But, in fact, during the 1978 Eurovision Song Contest, not only was Jahn Teigen’s zero-point score not read out, but the only languages that were used were English and French.

2-: 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.”

3-: From Nancy Banks-Smith on the everlasting Eurovision Song Contest: Sing in the tail, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Monday 25th April 1983:

The coveted prize of nuls points, zero rating or The Whangdoodle Trophy (it is accepted that The Whangdoodle Four3 were, by general acclaim, the worst act in variety) was this year shared by Turkey and Spain. Some will argue that Turkey’s offering, Opera, Opera, Opera, Opera, Opera, Opera, Opera, Opera, Carmen, Aida, with its background of the Bosporus Light Operatic Society, abundantly be-frogged, was nuller than Spain’s Flamenco from a barefoot singer who stamped a good deal and appeared in some pain.

3 This refers to the Whangdoodle Entertainers, a U.S. jazz and ragtime band formed in Seattle, Washington, which performed from approximately 1907 to 1925.

The expression is used attributively in the following from The day peace broke out, by Julian Barnes, published in The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 12th May 1985:

Everyone rejoiced when nul-point Norway won the Eurovision Song Contest.

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.

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of that transferred use that I have found:

1-: From The malady lingers on, by Hilary Kingsley, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Monday 25th April 1983:

The big boast about the Eurovision Song Contest which filled three hours on BBC-1 on Saturday night is that 500 million people watch it.
The big scandal is that 500 million watch it because there’s little else on. But they don’t enjoy it because many of the songs are rotten and every simple announcement is made three tedious times in three languages4.
[…] The BBC must push its partners into changing the marathon of the voting into a middle distance run if not a sprint. […]
So fix it, BBC, or you’ll get “nul point” next time.

4 German was used in addition to English and French during the 1983 Eurovision Song Contest because the host country was the Federal Republic of Germany.

2-: 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 Inn5 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.

5 Berni Inn: a chain of British steakhouses.

3-: 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.

4-: From Nancy Banks-Smith on television in the eye of the storm: Flash, bang, wallop, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Tuesday 28th May 1985:

I have never seen a cameraman struck by lightning before. To be precise, I still haven’t but during The Longest Running Show On Earth (Channel 4), the camera whirled, fell in the grass on its ear and lay there breathing stertorously and transmitting two startled spectators standing sideways.
All this excitement occurred while volunteers were planting oak seedlings in Weston Wood, between Rugby and Leamington Spa, as part of Channel 4’s four hour conservation special. It was perhaps tempting fate to plant oaks in the middle of a forest in a thunderstorm but, really, you would think Nature could have shown a little more appreciation of such fresh-faced enthusiasm. Throughout Britain came the cry of “Bring a spade and wellies” and the sound of frightful squelching. There are few more endearing sights than conservationists, toiling in rainstorms on crumbling riverbanks, to make life nicer for ducks.
The lightning struck during a David Bellamy look alike competition and I think it a great shame that, what with one thing and another, Weston Wood got the famous nul points.

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