I am writing this piece during my enforced period of social isolation and it is fair to say that I am fed up, by which I mean that I am listless, somewhat annoyed, browned off, cheesed off, bored. Fed up is usually associated with a situation that has prevailed for some time. Fed is the past tense of the verb to feed so why has it been appropriated to convey a sense of annoyance and ennui?
Unsurprisingly, fed up was used in its literal sense, to denote someone or, in the case of livestock, some thing that has eaten well, possibly even to excess. Pope’s Bath Chronicle, in its edition of May 3, 1764, when opining on Whether Love be a natural or fictitious Passion, observed that “in some Parts of the East, a Woman of Beauty, properly fed up for Sale, often amounts to one hundred Crowns”. In describing the Greek hero, Achilles, the Southampton Town and County Herald on May 9, 1825 noted that he “was not only born and bred, but fed up, too, for a hero, was nourished with the marrow of lions”.
Hawks, noted the Reverend Richard Lubbock in his Observations on the Fauna of Norfolk, published in 1845, were allowed to gorge themselves “for if the bird’s behaviour has been good, it is fed up by way of encouragement”. In discussing whether the Duke of Bourbon could have hung himself, the Middlesex Courier in February 1832 lambasted the inability of Princes to do anything for themselves; “they are fed up, as it were, in a stall to exist and not to act”. Although they may have been bored, the sense is that, rather like Terry Jones’ Monsieur Creosote in The Meaning of Life, they are stuffed and can barely move.
The intriguingly entitled The Struggles and Adventures of Christopher Tadpole at Home and Abroad, published in 1848 by Albert Smith reveals a slight ambiguity in the usage of fed up. “Glad enough to come, and then you get fed up, and insolent, instead of grateful”. There is no reason to think that Smith used the term in anything other than its literal sense, but the modern reader could see that it carries a hint of annoyance or boredom.
It was around the middle of the 19th century that the modern figurative usage emerged. The Dundee Courier on March 3, 1858 wrote, “many a man has been fed up to an ill-humour” and the Southern Reporter, a paper based in Cork, noted on August 20, 1867 that “he has been fed up with a certain class with a certain class of cheap literature till he loathes it”. A Charles Reader, who had practised medicine in India, wrote in relation to a conjuring trick involving a girl who vanished, “I am completely fed up with the business”. In all the examples, the writer has been sated with something to such an extent that they are bad-tempered.
They say that life as a soldier is 99% boredom and 1% action, leading some authorities, including the Oxford English Dictionary, to suggest that fed up originated as a piece of military slang. That it was used in a military context is clear, as this snippet from The Westmoreland Gazette from November 1900 shows: “it may be quite true, to use an expression in South Africa just now, the men are fed up with the war”. However, there are enough examples dating from earlier than that usage of the figurative use of fed up in a context other than military to pour cold water over that theory. As with many a phrase, it transitioned from literal to figurative.
I will leave matters there before I get fed up with the subject.