“No joy”

The ever-observant Wes Davis writes, “It may be my imagination, but I think I’ve been hearing Americans using ‘no joy’ in the Brit sense of ‘no luck.'”

I was not aware of that sense, but sure enough, the OED’s definition 1.g. of “joy” reads:colloq. Result, satisfaction, success. Esp. with negative, and freq. ironical.” The first relevant citation is from a 1946 book, Escape to Danger (and the quotation marks suggest a fresh coinage). “At 9.15 the workers had been down nearly forty minutes and still ‘no joy’.” Then from Stanley Price’s 1961 Just for Record: ” I..tried to get a taxi. No joy, so back into the studio.” Those and all subsequent citations appear to be British. There is also a Canadian shoegazing band called No Joy, formed in 2009.

However, as Wes noticed, the expression is creeping into American usage. I found several recent examples on Google News. Boston Globe tech columnist Hiawatha Bray (born in Chicago) writes in a recent piece: “I’ve asked Facebook for a comment, but no joy so far.”

And Tom Maxwell (born in Baltimore), in a Salon review of BBC Music’s video of “God Only Knows,” wrote last year:

Elton John, looking pained, covered in computer-generated blue butterflies, singing, “You’ll never need to doubt it.”  From the look of things, he should be singing, “Everything is satisfactual,” but no joy.

There is also a specifically American use, at least according to Urban Dictionary. A 2006 post offers this definition: “In air intercept, a code meaning, ‘I have been unsuccessful,’ or, ‘I have no information.'”

A later poster elaborates. “When a control tower advises a pilot that he has an approaching aircraft. If the pilot does not see the approaching aircraft, after a few seconds, he can reply ‘no joy.'”

If I could find out exactly how and when “no joy” entered U.S. military parlance, I would be a happy man.

28 thoughts on ““No joy”

  1. Regarding the first OED citation, “At 9.15 the workers had been down nearly forty minutes and still ‘no joy’,” with no context beyond the book’s title, I’ll infer one, which is that the workers were undersea or underground, perhaps on a rescue mission, in which case I would interpret “joy” not as “luck,” but as “joy upon their reappearance.”

  2. “no joy” occurs in Nevil Shute so it may have been a WW2 coinage. Google found me a use in a 2001 USCG account of 1953/4 Eniwetok events “We attempted to start the engine, naturally . . . , no joy! ”
    Little Egret in Walton-on-Thames

  3. I was a U S Navy pilot in the 1960’s and ’70’s and the terms “Tally Ho” and “No Joy” were used in response to ground radar operator warnings of other aircraft traffic in one’s area. The operator would warn of “traffic in your 2 o’clock position, 15,000 feet, closing” and you would look in the area indicated and respond “Tally Ho” if you spotted the other aircraft or “No Joy” if you couldn’t see anything. I don’t know the age of this usage but we used it anytime discussing other aircraft nearby. Radar control came only after World War II so I would assume the usage began in the years afterward. It may have originated earlier, of course, and just transposed itself into an aviation environment.

    Many of the customs and terms in the U S Military, of course, originated in Britain. I recall standing in formation during officer training when one of my fellow sufferers happened to refer to part of his apparel as “pants.” Our Marine Drill Instructor (DI) turned crimson and bowled his way through the formation knocking over any of us in the way like ten pins, ending a few inches from the poor miscreant’s ear and shouted, “Pants??? Pants??? My little girl wears Pants!!! Gentlemen wear TROUSERS!!!” That was some 48 years ago today and I still can’t bring myself to use “pants.” Such things are seared into young minds and has become one of many of the eccentricities that perplexes my wife. Of course, she never was on the receiving end of a Marine DI’s tirade, so how could she understand?

    Charles Mayfield


    1. I have read that this terminology (no joy/tallyho) came into use during the Battle of Britain, which involved the first development of air intercept guided by radar and the necessity of developing concise terminology to create a common understanding between multiple stations.

  4. As to your final interrogatory, Ben, perhaps via returning USAAF/USAF servicemen based in the UK between 1942 and the nineties?

    Maybe a little RAF argot rubbed off?


  5. “No joy” in aviation military parlance may have been adopted by English speaking NATO pilots following on from WW2 when “bandits” bogies” and “angels” “vectored” about the sky….I’m also certain Tom Cruise said “Tally Ho” in “top gun.” He was not on a horse.
    I’ve heard “no joy” used in the UK almost all my life it seems a surprise to me that it’s use in the USA is new..ish.

  6. Oh goodness my post was written before I niticed Charles Mayfields post!
    I can understand “pants”. It’s even worse now as my daughters use the word to identify an object or an event as undesirable or unacceptable.

  7. To my British ear, Tom Maxwell’s usage isn’t quite idiomatic, possibly because it doesn’t have the connotation of lack of success which “no joy” has (he seems simply to be saying “but he isn’t”).

    As somebody has noted above, there is the related expression “any joy”, which is often used in sporting commentary, for example: “Spurs aren’t having any joy down the left”.

  8. @ Charles Mayfield: my father, born in the US in 1907, was raised by my grandmother, an immigrant from the UK. My father NEVER got used to the American usage of “pants.” “Pants,” he would yell at us, “are underwear.” Fortunately for my sister and me, he wasn’t enough of a Marine DI, so my sister and I both say “pants” to mean trousers for either men or women.

    1. I thought the use of “pants” to mean underpants was a recent thing? I’d never heard it before moving to London in the 90’s. Before that, I’d lived in north west England and New Zealand and pants had been on the outside.. A lot of people in the north west still mean trousers when they say “pants”. A guy at work calls waders “fishing pants”! Another word for trousers was “kecks”…

      The RAF developed a radar control system in the late 30’s. The words used had specific meanings to reduce confusion over radios with poor reception. That’s were all the “bandits” and “angels” etc comes from.

  9. Bandit is an identified enemy. Angels is an altitude in 1000s of feet. You make a mess in your (under)pants if the bandit has more Angels….. Sorry!

  10. I am at this moment writing an email to a client asking if they had “any joy” with getting a referee – it’s certainly an expression I’ve heard and used all my life in New Zealand…. where of course we primarily use British English, but the influence of American English has crept ever more increasingly into our language over the years.

  11. “Tally hoe” and “no joy” are used in the fighter community for a specific reason that has nothing to do with the romanticism so many think it does. It has to do with brevity and clarity. In aerial combat whether air to air or ground attack or even in today’s crowded skies, there is a tremendous amount of radio chatter. When traffic, a bandit, or a bogey is called out and you respond “tally hoe” or “no joy”, any part of the response can get stepped on or cut out by other radio chatter, but it will still be understood if any part of the transmitted response gets through. For example “Lead break right, bandit right 5 high 2 miles closing” Response gets partially cut off by other radio chatter but either “…….oy, or ………hoe” gets through, then you know the response was either “tally hoe” meaning I see it, or “no joy” meaning I don’t see it. As opposed to only catching the last part of the transmission “……..sight” or even two words “………in sight” In that case one would not know for sure whether lead was saying “I have it in sight”, or “I don’t have it in sight” if only the last word or two made it through. The response would be ambiguous if any of it was cut out. It’s all about brevity, clarity and precision, not romanticism involving English tradition even though that is where the phrases were first used.

  12. Just heard “no joy” used by a New York detective in a 1999 episode of “Law and Order”. It was used in the sense of “no success” when they were trying to trace a suspect.

    1. It is frequently used in the US Military and law enforcement-usually expressing if you found what you were looking for…

  13. I never heard “no joy” or “any joy” until I started watching British TV shows on Netflix. What a crazy discovery this morning to find that the 1769 King James Version of the Bible uses “joy” in the OED meaning! – (Philemon 1:20 KJV) “Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord…” The Greek word being – (Strong’s G3685) – oninēmi – “to gratify, that is, (middle voice) to derive pleasure or advantage from”. So it looks like it’s been in usage since the 1700s, at least.

  14. “No joy” was well established in French military parlance by 1961. In his book “Street without Joy,” Bernard B. Fall explains that French troops called Route 1 from Huế to Quảng Trị the “street without joy” because it was controlled by the Viet Minh and so extremely dangerous.

  15. Clarification: the French called Route 1 “La Rue Sans Joie,” which translated exactly as “street without joy.”

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