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shameless pleading






Don’t look down

Dear Word Detective:  There is one word in the English language that never ceases to amaze and amuse me: “up.” There is the direction “up,” and then a million or so other phrases using the word: “free up,” “clam up,” “start up,” “shut up,” “send up,” “hurry up,” “put up” and so on, ad nauseam. How did this simple two-letter word get so many uses, and is there another definition of “up” that sets all those phrases apart from the direction “up”? — Gary.

Thanks for asking that question. Not only is it interesting in its own right, but it also, in a roundabout way, renewed my faith in my own memory. As soon as I read your query about “up,” I had a faint feeling of deja vu, not about “up,” but its opposite, “down.” I couldn’t remember writing a column specifically about the direction “down,” but, after I took the dogs for a walk, I realized that I had recently done one on “downs” in the names of racetracks (e.g., Churchill Downs). That “downs” comes from the Old English “dun,” meaning “hill,” and our modern word “down,” the direction, came from the derivative “adown,” meaning “from a hill,” i.e., in a descending direction.

I wish I could say that “up,” the direction, had as catchy an origin as “down” does, but ’twas not to be. Our modern English word “up” comes, as the words for “up” in many other European languages do, pretty directly from the Indo-European root “up,” signifying “up from below.” Snooze city, I know. The only truly interesting thing about that ancient “up” is that it also ultimately produced the words “open” and “over,” as well as the prefixes “hyper” and “super.”

But whatever excitement “up” may lack in its lineage, it has more than made up for in its wildly popular career in the English language. The phrases you have highlighted in your question, employing uses of “up” that are seemingly unrelated to either the direction or each other, are only the tip of the “up” iceberg. It’s like the linguistic version of the classic Monty Python “Spam” skit, where everything on the menu has at least some Spam in it. Over the centuries, we have apparently bolted “up” onto almost every verb in the English language. If you were to print out the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary for the adverb “up,” it would run to thirty-eight pages, and the Oxford editors’ note on “figurative and transferred” (i.e., not literally directional) uses of “up” sounds, not surprisingly, a bit testy and exhausted: “Some uncertainty attaches to the origin and development of many of these uses, the variety of which is so great that the adverb comes to present a number of highly divergent and even directly opposite senses, e.g., ‘to bind up’ in contrast with ‘to break up’….” In other words, many of the uses of “up” in common phrases really doesn’t make sense.

There are, of course, some broad senses found in the use of “up” in idioms that can be detected. There is the sense of “to a state of greater cheerfulness or resolution” as in “buck up” and “cheer up” or that of “to a higher speed or amount,” as in “grow up” or “speed up.” There are the contradictory senses of “bring into the open” (as in “open up” and “dig up”) and that of “to close” (“shut up,” “clam up”) or “to finish” (“sew up” or “wind up,” etc.). But for every usage that you nail down, there are ten more with slightly different overtones, and soon you’re rummaging in your desk drawer for the aspirin. Furthermore, enumerating the dozens of uses to which “up” has been put doesn’t really explain most of them. What, after all, could the “up” in “break up” possibly mean that would logically have anything to do with the direction “up”? There is no logic to these idiomatic uses of “up,” so it’s probably best to stop looking too closely at this annoying little word and simply, dare I say it, give up.

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