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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

no harm, no foul

(1980’s | athletese | “no harm done,” “nothing to worry about,” “let’s forget the whole thing”)

I’m afraid the obvious origin is the true one. This expression was first used by basketball referees and sportswriters to describe a “philosophy” of officiating; here is a lovely definition from 1958: “if the contact does not interfere with the progress of the game, a foul shall not be called.” The earliest uses I found attributed the maxim to referees in the Big Ten Conference, in America’s heartland. “No harm, no foul” remained the property of basketball people until around 1980, when it started to creep into the language of politics and law. It’s not hard to see that the expression might appeal to lawyers, in that it summarizes an important legal principle: There must be real injury — not just the potential for it or some theoretical wrong — or there can be no tort. The phrase is commonly used now in the law to denote an argument or strategy designed to undercut plaintiffs by demonstrating that they have suffered no damage. If no one has really been hurt, there’s no infraction, and we can all get on with our lives.

It’s an awfully convenient argument, and requiring a plaintiff to prove incontrovertible injury makes redress less probable. Harm isn’t always visible to the naked eye, and if the malefactor is clever, or powerful, enough, he or she may be able to do great harm without warning. If the government invades your privacy, or a corporation poisons your water, the effects may not be felt for years, but they are real. Sometimes “no harm, no foul” is used when there is obvious harm, as way of obscuring it, or denying culpability. Thus the expression has developed a definite dark side in legalese; now it may go beyond time-honored principle to something a lot sleazier: “Yes, we broke the rules, but the same damage would have occurred if we hadn’t, so we’re not liable.” Only the government or another large institution can afford to take this position in court, illustrating another venerable legal principle: money and power almost always win.

In everyday speech, the phrase has become a stock response to an apology, loosely translated as “It doesn’t bother me, so you don’t have to feel guilty.” As Urban Dictionary notes, it has taken on a kinship with “No problem” or “no worries” to complement its persistent echo of the older “no harm done.” More broadly, “no harm, no foul” has become an all-purpose dismissal, with shades of meaning from “not my problem” to “everything’s fine.” These days, it is casually tossed off in myriad contexts, not just among athletes and lawyers, but chefs, farmers, art critics, you name it. And it has become almost empty of any specific meaning. It’s one of dozens of signals that there’s no need to take offense, or we’re all cool. What little rigor it had during its sheltered life among the basketball referees has vanished. And why should we care, after all? No harm, no foul.

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