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Gin up

How to make your horse hate you.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m supposed to be balancing my checkbook, but instead I was reading through frivolous news and blogs this evening.  Again, today, President Obama used the expression “ginned up” to describe the perhaps made-up hysteria of politicians, media, and the like about the latest topics of discussion proposed by his administration.  He has used this a few times over the past few months and each time, I have thought (and then forgot) to look it up.  I finally did — and confirmed my interpretation of what he means by it.  However, there are a few different theories as to the origin of this expression: 1) derived from “ginger up,” relating to spicing something up (including a horse’s tail!); or 2) derived from “engined up” as if powered up by something.  What is your take on this (re)addition to the political lexicon? — Jenny Nunemacher.

I know what you mean — I too routinely make a mental note to look something up online when I get get home and get the chance, but then promptly forget to do so, often forever.  I suppose I could get one of those cell phones that also has a web browser, but I hate telephones.  Yesterday I discovered that our ancient cell phone (which we keep in the car) somehow became set, at least three years ago, to not accept incoming calls.  Awesome.  I’m leaving it that way.

I had noticed President Obama’s use of “gin up” to mean “agitate or excite,” usually by means of a phony or exaggerated controversy, during the campaign last year, and he seems to have singlehandedly revived this fine old Americanism.  “Gin up” has never fallen entirely out of use since it first appeared in the 19th century.  But the phrase has definitely stepped back into the limelight of late, including in an odd sentence in the Wall Street Journal recently that embedded it in an especially garbled example of what grammarians call over-negation: “Can you really hope to gin up a red scare without almost no reds?”  Um, no?

In its original sense, “to gin up” meant simply “to excite, to make lively,” although today there is almost always an implication that the premise of the excitement is fabricated or “cooked up.”  There are, as you found, two main theories as to the origins of “gin up.”  Neither of them has any connection, by the way, to “gin” the liquor, which comes from the Dutch word for “juniper,” used to flavor the drink.

The first traces “gin up” to the noun “gin,” a short form of “engine,” which originally simply meant “intelligence or inventiveness” (from the Latin “ingenium,” which also gave us “ingenuity”).  “Engine” in the derivative sense of “machine,” a product of such inventiveness, dates back to the 14th century.  The shortened form “gin” has meant “skill or ingenuity” since the 13th century when “to gin” was also used to mean “to start up or begin.”  It is possible that “gin up” in the sense of “create excitement” comes from this “start” sense.  It is also possible that “gin up” was inspired by the “cotton gin” (short for “cotton engine”), a machine used to remove the seeds from cotton in the American South in the 19th century.  As of 1887, “to gin” meant “to work hard” or “make things hum” like a cotton gin in operation.

The other theory of “gin up” traces it to the application of ginger (the spice) to the posteriors of horses in order to make them appear livelier to a prospective purchaser or to run faster in a race.  Such “gingering” was apparently widespread at one time.  That sounds to me like a prescription for getting yourself kicked, but the Oxford English Dictionary likes this theory.  Personally, I lean more toward the “gin” in the “create or start up” sense as the root of “gin up.”

12 comments to Gin up

  • Rachael

    I’ve heard alot of Americans (President, TV presenters etc) use the term and I have to admit it gave me pause. In Australia it’s not a well used phrase possibly because here, growing up, a gin was a black person (a very derogatory term, and ‘ginned up’ meant made up – as in all black people are liars so the story is probably ginned up).

    I had a look at origins of the term and it’s very different in the US, so i’ll make an effort to shrug of the shock of hereing the phrase and try to listen to the message in the future.

  • David Kennedy

    More discussion on NPR today (22 Dec) on this phrase. I, for one, do not regard it as obscure at all. I use the expression “gin up” regularly, but more to mean “create”, as in “Gin up a response to that request”, and I always thought its origin was the cotton gin, which created a more finished product from something raw.

  • TC Smith

    It’s jin up not gin up. Nice try.

  • Ross

    I found this page because I searched on ‘gin up’ because, as noted, it seems to be making a comeback and was new to me. I also entered it into the Google Ngram Viewer (I’ll try to enter a link at the end of this, but don’t know if it will work as this is my first time on this site) and found its popularity peaked in the late 19th century, but is showing a huge increase in the past several years.

    (Oh, and I also frequently make a mental note to look something up when next online — and manage to forget!)

    The Ngram link for the phrase ‘gin up’ is

  • Tom in DC

    “Jin Up” Create or conjur up something from nothing much as a Jin (or Genie) does. Frequently used in the military such as “You still need to jin up the specs for the new rocket launcher before we can put it out for bids.” Translation: Full technical specifications are required prior to requesting prototype estimates. Anther example is “He jinned up a white paper that convinced the General that we need a mod to the OPORD.” Translation: He drafted a set of arguments to support initiation of a policy revision.

  • curious1

    Don’t you think it originates from the cotton gin? You would “gin up” a bunch of cotton ….

  • Eileen

    Even Chris Matthews i used it during his show, Hardball tonight, 2-9-12. New to me.

  • Byron Hayes

    Google the term ” figging ” and you will get it

  • Bannister

    It does NOT mean to “create” or make up something false. It DOES mean to excite, agitate or “stir the pot” – perhaps through the use of hyperbole, but not outright falsehood.

  • Wordsmith

    It more likely refers to “jin” as in “jinn” or “genie.” Jinning up something means to conjure it up, like a genie would.

  • Locke

    I would have thought it’s origins were from American Prohibition, regarding cooking bathtub Gin… Which fits all the definitions, to stir the pot, make more lively, and conjure from nothing.

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