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.
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.
(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. (Fuck, fuckin’, 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.