another Civil War-era F-word discovery

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Sep 17 04:53:14 UTC 2012

In 2006, Jon Lighter made an important discovery -- a use of "fucked
up" in an 1863 court-martial record:

The use was confirmed by the OED and now is included as the first cite
for sense 1 (with the meaning 'ruined, broken; of poor quality, awful;
messed-up'). According to JL, the next known use is from 1929.

Now comes word of another surprisingly early use of "fucked up", from
an 1865 letter to Andrew Johnson. Greg Downs sends along this example
appearing in _The Papers of Andrew Johnson, Vol. 8_, ed. by Paul
Bergeron, p. 457:

Mr Johnson
New York July 24/65
Dear. Sir
You fucked up Son of a Bitch! If you dont let Jeff go I will Be at
your house in less than 24 Ours and Dan me if you dont get hin of I
will Blow your dan Brains out You Son of a Bitch

Yours Truly
Mr Brown

To president Andrew Johnson

The volume is in Google Books
( but it's in Limited
Preview and that page isn't visible, unfortunately.

Not only is this example significant for corroborating the Civil
War-era usage, but it also is notable for the human target of the
insult: "fucked up" modifies "son of a bitch", rather than something
inanimate or corporate, such as "company" (in the 1863 example). One
could even argue that this falls under OED sense 2 ("of a person:
confused; mentally disturbed, insane..."), for which the earliest cite
is from 1945. Then again, it's really Mr. Brown and not Mr. Johnson
who is revealed to be confused and mentally disturbed here (despite
the courteous "yours truly"). Takes one to know one, I suppose?


Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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