Dear Word Detective: At lunch today we were speaking of the draft (the military sort, not the wind sort) and my lunch buddy claimed that the designation “4-F” came from the Civil War when they used muskets (first hogwash point) and men had to use their front teeth to dislodge the plug in the powder container they carried. Doing this task required four teeth in front, both upper and lower, and if a chap were lacking in those natural dental implements he was called “4-F” (for “four front”). The whole thing sounded like utter folk etymological claptrap. What say you, oh wise and noble Word Maven of the Western World (WMWM)? — Swami Murugananda.
WMWM? Based on some of the irate email I get, I’ve always thought of myself as more of a YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) kind of guy. Remember, kids, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, so make the Delete key your friend.
In any case, your nonsense detector seems to be working quite well. The story your buddy came up with is, as you suspect, utter claptrap. On your first hogwash point, however, I think your detector is set a bit too high. Muskets (smooth-bore shoulder-fired firearms) were indeed used in the American Civil War, along with rifles (spiral grooves in the barrel), carbines (short rifles), and a wide variety of revolvers and pistols.
The “show us your teeth” explanation of “4-F” founders on several points. Although there was military conscription during the Civil War, I can find no evidence that a detailed system of draft classification, let alone the label “4-F,” existed at that time. Even if such a system had been in effect, it’s very unlikely that a single criterion, inability to open a powder pouch, would have rated a special classification when so many other disabilities (blindness, deafness, etc.) would also have disqualified the draftee. And even if one needed, and lacked, front teeth to fire a musket, there were plenty of openings for mule drivers and clerks.
As to what “4-F” actually means, the answer is pretty much nothing. During and following World War I, there was a classification system that divided conscripts into Class I (qualified for military service) and Classes II through V (unqualified or exempt). A more detailed system during and after the Second World War included 52 separate classifications, from I-A (Welcome to the Army) to IV-A (Go home, Grandpa), including IV-F, “Rejected for military service for physical, mental, or moral reasons.” The same general categories were retained after WW II with some additions, such as the ever-popular “2-S” or “student” deferment. Although the “F” in “4-F” may have been partly inspired by “fail” (or the school grade “F”), it didn’t officially stand for anything.