origin of ‘fed up’ (annoyed, unhappy or bored)

The adjective fed up means annoyedunhappy or bored, especially with a situation that has existed for a long time.

The original, literal meaning is simply sated with food, since to feed up an animal or a person is to supply them with rich and abundant food. For example, the author of Whether Love be a natural or fictitious Passion, published in Pope’s Bath Chronicle of 3rd May 1764, wrote:

The Difference between the Antients [sic] and Moderns is not so great, as between the different Countries of the present World. […] In some Parts of the East, a Woman of Beauty, properly fed up for Sale, often amounts to one hundred Crowns; in the Kingdom of Loango, Ladies of the very best Fashion are sold for a Pig; Queens however sell better, and sometimes amount to a Cow.

And the following is from the Southampton Town & County Herald, Isle of Wight Gazette, and General Advertiser (Hampshire) of 9th May 1825:

Some have imagined that animal food communicates its qualities with its nourishment. In this supposition it was that Achilles, who was not only born and bred, but fed up, too, for a hero, was nourished with the marrow of lions; and we all know what a fine lion he turned out at last. Should this rule hold, it must be a melancholy reffection [sic] to consider that the London people of the present day are particularly partial to pork!

The current negative meaning of fed up may lead us to misinterpret texts in which it was used literally, such as this passage from The Struggles and Adventures of Christopher Tadpole at Home and Abroad (1848), by the English author Albert Richard Smith (1816-60):

“You’re all alike—an idle, good-for-nothing, ungrateful lot. Glad enough to come, and then you get fed up, and insolent, instead of grateful.”

It has often been said that the current meaning of fed up originated in falconry. It is true that it is a technical expression, but with a positive meaning, as the Reverend Richard Lubbock explained in Observations on the Fauna of Norfolk (1845):

No words can describe the aspect of a successful falcon, as, trampling upon its prostrate foe, it eats the food presented; for if the bird’s behaviour has been good, it is “fed up” by way of encouragement.

And it is doubtful that a technical term originating in limited circles would have become so common.

The two following quotes show the shift to the current figurative sense of fed up. The first is from a book titled The Housewife’s Reason Why, some passages of which were published in the Dundee Courier (Scotland) of 3th March 1858:

If housewives only knew how many evils arise from rendering home monotonous—if they understood how their daily ordinances are insensibly and unintentionally reflected in the countenances and conduct of fathers and children—they would treasure the philosophy which we are endeavouring to impart to them. Many a man has been fed up to an ill-humour by bad management; coldness, sameness, and gloom about his home, have gathered up the elements of strife, which have broken out in storm.

The second is from The Southern Reporter and Cork Daily Commercial Courier (Ireland) of 20th August 1867:

The working man has been too much petted—petted and patted on his back till the poor fellow is sick. He has been fed up with a certain class of cheap literature till he loathes it.

It seems that, contrary to what the OED (Oxford English Dictionary – 3rd edition, 2015) states, the figurative use of fed up did not originate as military slang. I have discovered an instance of this adjective used metaphorically which is civilian and predates the earliest quote in the OED by fourteen years. In October 1886, a controversy arose between several readers of The Era (London) over a conjuring trick, the illusion of the vanishing lady. The final letter, published on 16th October, was written by a certain Charles Reader, apparently a physician who had practised in India; this letter thus ends:

I have never seen a vanishing girl in India, but I once saw the flowering seed illusion done in a way which Englanders would find it hard to equal. My duties did not give me an opportunity of studying the cream of the Madras jugglers. I know much more about the fever and ague of balmy Allahabad. To the courteous Mr Wingard [= another reader], I would disclaim the smallest desire on my part to see any more conjuring. I am completely fed up with the business. I am not cynical, but satiated.
          Yours faithfully,                                                   CHAS. READER.
     Woolwich, Oct. 11th, 1886.

(At the bottom of this letter, the editor of The Era wisely specified “No more letters on this subject can be inserted”.)

The Burnley Express (Lancashire) of 6th April 1895 published an article titled John Bull & Uncle Sam, written on an Atlantic liner taking back to Europe

dozens [of] English, Irish, Scotch, German, Scandinavian, artizans [sic], farmers, labourers, speculators; all sorts and conditions of men who had lived there [= in the USA], toiled there, succeeded or failed there, who had had their “own row to hoe,” and knew just what things were. […] “They were going home.” Why? That was the question! I received a multitude of answers. Each had his experience; each had his “comparative estimate” of America and the old country. […]
They’d had enough; they were “fed up.” Their hopes had not been realised. Those great advantages had always been “further West.” If they got higher cash payments than in England the difference in values made it in reality less. They were no better off, and hadn’t the same comforts. With longer hours, and less “protection,” the boasted freedom seemed only to be freedom for the bosses to take all they could out of their employees at the minimum wages, without reasonable responsibility for conditions, life, or limb. Then the country was a mass of “combines,” rings, trusts, everything “cornerned” from wheat to coal oil, vast monopolies protected in their monopoly by the highest prohibition tariff wall on earth. Everybody “combined” except the “workers,” who were notably unable to hold together chiefly because of their heterogeneous constitution. Very rich and very poor; velvet and rags; 12,000 millionaires and 2,000,000 tramps, legislation of the people by the people for everybody but the people; the money-ocracy able by simple force of dollars to nullify and render abortive all ameliorative legislation in the interests of “the people.” Such was the verdict. They were “fed up,” and going home “to stay.”

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