Is that a new clipboard, Sir?
Dear Word Detective: I have always used the expression, “What are you souping me up?” or “I plan to soup him up.” In my neighborhood (Bronx, NY), this phrase meant to “butter someone up” (not necessarily lying to a person, but complimenting them, etc., so they would go along with you or do something you wanted them to do). Well, long story short, my son-in-law thinks I made this expression up and that it is not used by anyone but my family. I cannot find this expression anywhere for verification but know that I have heard this phrase used in movies, etc., and certainly by a large group of my friends and neighbors. I just need to prove this to my SIL and now my daughter who seems to believe her hubby on this matter. — Debra.
Da noive of some people. Obviously, people making up words and phrases (especially slang) is far from rare, which is why we have so many words and phrases. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in writing this column for the past gazillion years, it’s that strange words and phrases that the neighbors and in-laws have never heard are almost always “real,” well-established locutions, and frequently have histories going back hundreds of years.
On the other hand, it is true that your use of “soup up” to mean “to flatter, to curry favor with” is not recorded by any of the dictionaries or glossaries of slang I own. “Soup” has many other uses in slang, from “in the soup” meaning “in big trouble” (probably by allusion to “in hot water”) to “soup” meaning “nitroglycerin,” “fog” or “photographic developer.” In fact, one of the most popular 20th century uses of “soup” in slang was “to soup up,” meaning to increase the power of a car’s engine, a phrase which was rooted in “soup” as old racetrack slang for stimulants surreptitiously injected into horses to make them run faster.
After searching exhaustively for some mention of the “butter up” sense of “soup up” you asked about, I finally thought to search the archives of the American Dialect Society mailing list (www.americandialect.org). Bingo (maybe). Last year, linguist Benjamin Zimmer posted to the list an article he had found on college slang from The Boston Globe in 1902. One of the phrases apparently then current was “souping,” with the example “A student who endeavors to get a high stand mark by favoritism is said to be ‘souping’ the professor….” That would certainly seem to fit with your “flatter” use of “soup up.”
Some participants on the ADS list wondered whether the 1902 reference might be akin to “wine and dine,” i.e., show a good time to someone in hopes of gaining favor. It was also suggested that “soup” in the quote might have just been a typographical error for “soap,” 19th century slang for “flatter” (as in “soft soap”).
But I think the 1902 citation is legit, and that the term “to soup up” meaning “to flatter” harks back to “soup” as slang for drugs given to race horses to make them perform better. After all, there’s no drug more powerful than flattery.