another Civil War-era F-word discovery

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Sep 17 15:33:54 UTC 2012

In case it isn't clear, the "Jeff" in the letter ("if you don't let
Jeff go...") is Jefferson Davis. Greg Downs notes that this and other
letters from the summer of '65 were prompted by newspaper accounts of
Davis' suffering in jail. Johnson apparently received many death
threats at the time.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any further information about
the identity of Mr. Brown, or his whereabouts.

On Mon, Sep 17, 2012 at 11:17 AM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
> Brilliant, Ben. Thanks for posting.
> JL
> On Mon, Sep 17, 2012 at 12:53 AM, Ben Zimmer wrote:
>> 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?
>> --bgz

Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list