Raise a glass-half-empty to Fuckup Nights, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary. The “global movement and event series that shares stories of professional failure” was founded in Mexico City in 2012 and has spread to 252 cities in 80 countries, including Myanmar, Serbia, Colombia, Turkey, and Ukraine. The local languages may vary, but the name of the event, even in its native Mexico, remains proudly and swearily English: Fuckup.

How fucked up is the kerning in that wordmark?

That seems only fair: When it comes to describing failure, bungling, or omnishambles attributable to human incompetence or idiocy, nothing’s as succinct or as damning as fuckup. Or, surprisingly, as venerable.

Like myriad other sweary expressions, fuckup and its variants originated in military slang — not the familiar slang of the 20th century* but in a usage that dates back the U.S. Civil War, if not earlier. According to Jesse Sheidlower’s authoritative The F-Word (second edition), fucked-up, the adjective, first appeared in print in 1863, in the Record of the General Courts-Martial & Courts of Inquiry of the U.S. Navy (Case 3401): “He stepped to the front of his tent …, and in a loud voice said, ‘What the bloody hell is wanted now, this is a fucked up Company anyhow, and always has been since the Guard came on shore.’” (One yearns to know the backstory.) Sheidlower defines adjectival fucked up as “ruined or spoiled, especially through incompetence or stupidity; botched; chaotic; in difficulty; (broadly) messed up.”

Fuckup continued to have a mostly military career for many decades, if the literature is to be trusted. Norman Mailer bowdlerized it to fug-up in The Naked and the Dead (1948); James Jones used unexpurgated fuckup in his World War II novel From Here to Eternity (1951). In a bit of World War II correspondence published in his Letters (1988), John Cheever noted that “Last night two fuckups were discussing their disatisfactions [sic] with the army.” By the 1960s, though, fuckup had been enlisted into civilian slang: Claude Brown referred to “general fuck-ups” in his 1965 autobiographical novel Manchild in the Promised Land; and a 1968 collection, Notes from the New Underground, contained the line “What stupid fuck-ups men are!” which remains as inarguable now as it was then.

“The Fuck-Up,” by Arthur Nersesian, “a thriller with a literary soul set in the pre-chic Lower East Side” (1997).

(Fuck-up, the noun, continues to appear in both hyphenated and unhyphenated forms, although as with many prefixed compounds, the trend is to dispense with the hyphen.)

The verb to fuck up seems to have emerged during World War I; its first appearance in print is in Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916. Known mostly as a poet and novelist, Manning, who was born in Sydney in 1882, moved to England in 1903 and enlisted in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry in 1915. He published The Middle Parts of Fortune anonymously in 1929; his faithful rendition of soldiers’ vernacular was too authentic for out-and-proud authorship. (Fuckfuckin’fucked, etc., appear 65 times in the manuscript.) Manning’s fucked up is in a bitter little ditty that he claims to have heard from soldiers on the march:

Oh, they’ve called them up from Weschurch,
And they’ve called them up from Wen,
And they’ll call up all the women,
When they’ve fucked up all the men.

To fuck up continued to thrive among soldiers and sailors throughout the succeeding decades, but it was also embraced by civilians, including some distinguished ones. Writing in 1944, John O’Hara said “I know I fucked up your afternoon schedule”; the humorist S.J. Perelman wrote in 1951 that “you’d managed to fuck up your life here.” (Citations courtesy of The F-Word.)

There’s an additional fuck up that, while not related to the “failure” sense, deserves a mention here. That would be “[verb] the fuck up,” most famously exemplified by shut the fuck up but also seen in back the fuck up and other variants. Here the fuck functions as an infixed intensifier; the core phrase is “[verb] up.”

According to The F-Word, STFU’s first appearance was in a 1991 post to the UseNet group alt.evil: “When you find your brain, let us know. Until then, STFU.” The unexplained use of the acronym suggests that it was not unfamiliar to its audience.

Samuel L. Jackson in a 2012 ad for the Barack Obama presidential campaign that parodied Adam’s Mansbach’s children’s book Go the Fuck to Sleep.


* SNAFU (situation normal, all fucked up), FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition), and TARFU (things are really fucked up) came out of World War II; clusterfuck from the Vietnam War. FUBAR has a separate euphemistic definition in classic computer jargon: Failed UniBus Address Register.

14 thoughts on “Fuckups

  1. John Cowan September 8, 2017 / 12:53 pm

    There’s also fuck [object] up, as in “John’s boss really fucked him up that time.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stan Carey September 8, 2017 / 7:44 pm

    I’ve just remembered another notable use: the repeated instruction “Fuck up, love!” that Nora Barnacle issued to James Joyce, as recalled in one of his dirty letters to her.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. bratschegirl September 9, 2017 / 6:04 pm

    Not surprisingly, I particularly enjoy the image from the cover of the Nersesian book, which has the “f” rendered unmistakably as a stringed instrument’s f-hole, the opening in the instrument’s top through which the sound is projected to the listener (though here the crossbar is bigger than the much more subtle central notches on an actual instrument, the overall shape is identical). Now imagine doing a demonstration of such an instrument and identifying that bit to a general middle-school audience…


  4. Mike Pope September 10, 2017 / 6:28 am

    According to some guys I know who were in the military, “clusterfuck” was euphemized as “Charlie Foxtrot,” which is handy for, you know, mixed company.

    FWIW, I’ve never heard or read the Failed UniBus expression.


  5. Patrick Collins September 10, 2017 / 7:14 pm

    I presume the original records for courts martial could be requested from some US archive. But here are some more details to be had for a click or two.


    > David M. Sullivan’s four volumes on _The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War_
    > (Shippensburg, Pa.: White Mane, 1997-2000) is the standard work on that subject. Volume 3 contains the following information (267):
    > “After being relieved from guard duty on Folly Island on October 31, 1863, Pvt. Robert McKnight did not report himself with his detachment for inspection by the orderly sergeant as required by standing orders….When Sgt. Thomas Buckley called McKnight to fall in…there was no response. Buckley called a second time, and a third. Finally, McKnight emerged from his tent and, in a loud voice, said, ‘What the bloody Hell is wanted now? This is a fucked up company anyhow, and always has been since the guard came on shore. To Hell with such a company and all connected with such a damned concern!'”
    > Not surprisingly, McKnight was soon standing trial at court-martial, charged with “disobedience of orders and scandalous conduct tending to the destruction of good morals.” The court found him guilty on the charge of disobeying orders but not guilty on that of subverting good morals. His otherwise sterling record, including volunteering for hazardous duty during operations against Battery Wagner (an Army assault on which features in the film _Glory_), saved McKnight from a brig sentence, and he wound up with no more than loss of a month’s pay (268).
    > The surly question, “What the bloody Hell is wanted now?” suggests that McKnight may have been a British or Irish immigrant, many of whom fought in the Civil War. (“What…is wanted..?” provides the hint rather than “bloody,” which HDAS 1 shows, perhaps to an extreme, to have been a transatlantic cuss-word for a long time.)
    > “Fuck up/ fucked up” reappears in the known lexical evidence not till 1929, in Australian Frederic Manning’s largely autobiographical novel of the British army in the Great War, _The Middle Parts of Fortune_ (Hemingway said he read it once a year). The U.S.A. provided the Reconstruction Era specimen of the vaguely related “fuck out of” (swindle out of), also in HDAS along with one metric ton of previously uncollected and/or uncollated related material.
    > Sullivan cites “Records of the Judge Advocate General (Navy), Case 3401, Pvt. Robert McKnight” as the contemporaneous source of McKnight’s remarks (334).

    Unless he was 79 years old and went on to become a highway robber, railroad fireman and congressman his name is too common to search for more in newspapers.

    However, we get more details with a search for his name bringing up a Google Book, Sexual Misbehavior in the Civil War: A Compendium by Thomas P. Lowry (2006, Xlibris Corporation) He was a US Marine, Folly Island is in South Carolina and his sentence was commuted to a fine from sixty days of solitary confinement in “single irons” and two weeks on bread and water because he was “a brave man, but surly and disagreeable.”


  6. Patrick Collins September 10, 2017 / 8:13 pm

    The OED has another citation for just 20 months later than the Robert McKnight example of “fucked up”, though as an insult to a person. In a letter to Andrew Johnson (a President of the USA) published in “The Papers of Andrew Johnson: May-August 1865” by Andrew Johnson (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1967), page 457 Available on Google Books:

    New York July 24/65

    Mr Johnson
    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 fet hin of i will Blow you dan Brains out You Son of a Bitch.
    Yours Truly Mr Brown


    This letter was included as an example of the threats received in Washington, in this case 2 months after the imprisonment of Jefferson Davis, “President” of the Confederate States. These threats were referred to Major Levi C Turner, an army legal chap. The threat was obviously from a Confederate sympathiser and possible veteran despite his civilian title, so I am not sure if this was military usage or not.


    • Nancy Friedman September 10, 2017 / 8:21 pm

      Many thanks, Patrick! That letter to Andrew Johnson could have been ripped from the virtual pages of Twitter.


      • Patrick Collins September 10, 2017 / 10:40 pm

        Unfortunately we are unlikely to ever find out if he meant “you made an error, Son of a Bitch” or “you damaged/inhumane Son of a Bitch”. I am now tending to believe the use as a verb rather than an adjective but it really could be either.


  7. CGHill September 10, 2017 / 10:20 pm

    The rap group Onyx issued an album in 1993 called Bacdafucup: the final track (#18!) is “Getdafucout.”.


  8. Pingback: Fuckups – ICTHub
  9. renee November 11, 2019 / 11:34 pm

    Hi. I landed here trying to find the first usage of “fuck up” as a verb. In the Harriet Tubman movie, a young slave catcher lets Harriet and her family go after he sees them cross a river, and when he tells his boss that he lost them, the boss says “you fucked up”. (This would be the early 1850s? Definitely pre-Civil War.) Sounded wrong to me, and you seem to confirm that, but I can’t easily get my hands on “The F Word” (which I clearly need).


    • Nancy Friedman November 12, 2019 / 4:13 am

      I noticed the use of “fucked up” in Harriet, too. It does seem to be an anachronism: both The F Word and Green’s Dictionary of Slang date the earliest citation for “fucked up” to 1929.


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