‘To the back teeth’ is an intensifier for the original phrase, ‘fed up,’ and it means extremely annoyed, unhappy, or dissatisfied. I’ve always heard it in the sense of having had more than enough of a person or a situation, and to be bored with or sick of whoever or whatever it is. People on the Wet Coast often get fed up with rain when it goes on day after day.
The Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches (2006) says that the American version of this British phrase is “fed to the gills,” which means thoroughly disgusted. Another British version is ‘fed up to the eyeballs.’
The expression dates from the early 19th century, and apparently comes from an old English proverb, ‘enough is as good as a feast.’ The awful feeling that comes from eating too much is what being ‘fed up’ means.
The first written example is from the English newspaper The Middlesex Courier, February 1832, and describes a court case in which it was argued that the Duke of Bourbon couldn’t have hanged himself, since he could neither stand on a chair nor tie a knot. The lawyer referred to ‘the awkwardness of Princes,’:
“Every thing being done for them, they never learn to do anything; they are fed up, as it were, in a stall to exist and not to act. It is rare to find a Prince who can walk decently across a room.”
Later on, The Anglo-Brazilian Times, 1873, has this comment:
“For eight months the Brazilian Government has been supporting immigrants from England, when, instead of being fed up in idleness, they really ought to have been prosecuted for representing themselves as agricultural labourers in place of the vagabonds they proved themselves to be.”
Though here, the term ‘fed up’ seems to refer to more directly to food, claiming that the laborers were well-fed, but disinclined to work for it.
One of the early figurative uses of the phrase appeared in The Westmoreland Gazette, 1900:
“It may be quite true that, to use an expression often heard in South Africa just now, the men are ‘fed up’ with the war.”
I guess so! I can think of a few stronger comments on what it’s like to fight in a war.
I’ve covered every phrase on my list that features teeth. Which is a good thing, because I’m fed up with teeth. Right to the back ones!