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shameless pleading

Side up

Just don’t ask me to explain “pediddle.”

Dear Word Detective:  Growing up, my mother used to say, “Please side-up the counters in the kitchen,” or “side-up” a place, which meant to us to clean up or clear off an area. Do you have any info on this expression or history of “side-up” or “sideup”? — Betsey.

It’s not fair, I tell you. Half you people out there seem to have grown up in a far more linguistically colorful world than I did. Your parents and grandparents were always telling you to “side up” things, or “redd up” the living room, or noting that Aunt Mabel “cleans up good” but Cousin Hubert’s car “needs washed.” I, on the other hand, spent my childhood in Connecticut just being asked to “clear off” the table or “straighten up” the living room. You guys learned to recognize “polecats” and “whistlepigs,” while I just saw skunks and groundhogs. You want to hear something truly scary? I was in college before I saw someone put ketchup on french fries. Malt vinegar, yeah, but ketchup? Weird. Seriously.

I had never heard “side” used in the “side up” way you mention, and I was expecting to have a bit of trouble tracking it down. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists it under the verb “to side,” and defines it as meaning “to put in order, arrange; to clear or tidy up,” frequently in the form “side up.” The OED’s earliest print citation for “side up” is from about 1825 in glossaries of dialect used in Northern England, and a citation from an 1847 letter employs it in the sense you remember (“I have plenty to employ me, in siding drawers.”).

The verb “to side” itself dates back to the late 15th century, and its most familiar modern use, “to take a side; to align oneself with one party in a dispute,” dates back to the early 17th century (“The Nobility are vexed, whom we see have sided in his behalf,” Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 1623). “Side” as a verb comes, of course, from the noun “side,” which has a dizzying number of senses in English but comes from Germanic roots meaning “the long part of a thing.” I think the folks at Oxford charged with writing the entry on “side” the noun deserve some sort of medal, or at least a long vacation. The definition of one basic sense (of many) reads “One or other of the two longer (usually vertical) surfaces or aspects of an object, in contrast to the ends, or of the two receding surfaces or aspects, in contrast to the front and back.” They then add, in tiny type, “The precise application depends to some extent on the form of the object and its position in relation to the observer.” I agree, and if you need me, I’ll be upstairs lying down.

The use of “side up” to mean “to put in order, arrange; to clear or tidy up” is actually explained by a related sense, the use of “to side” as a shortened form of “to put aside,” meaning “to remove; clear away” (“Mrs. Wilson was ‘siding’ the dinner things,” 1848). It’s apparent that this sense was also used to mean “tidy up” in general, not just after a meal (“Now side everything away. The medicines too, put them in the cupboard,” 1894).

I have the funny feeling that I ought, out of simple decency, to also explain “redd up,” to which I referred above. The verb “to redd” appeared in Scots and Northern English dialects in the 15th century meaning simply “to clear out or unblock; to remove a person or a thing from a place; to clear a space.” Today it’s still used in Scotland, Northern England, and the northern Midwest in the US, most often in the sense of “to tidy, to put in order,” often in the form “to redd up” (“To do something that she suggested towards redding up the slatternly room,” 1855). The roots of “redd” are uncertain, but it’s pretty obviously related to the older and now obscure verb “to rede,” meaning “to clear,” and both “redd” and “rede” may be related to the far more familiar verb “to rid.” Interestingly, “redd” in the US may also reflect the influence of the related  Low German and Dutch “redden,” meaning “to put in order, make ready,” which would make sense given the German heritage of many parts of the US Midwest. It may also be influenced by, or even linguistically connected to, our common verb “to ready.”

1 comment to Side up

  • Growing up in Northern England (God’s Own County of Yorkshire, no less) we regularly used the term, “side the pots” – which meant to put away or tidy up crockery.

    We had lots of other colourful expressions as well, including “mash the tea” for allowing tea to brew in the pot, “bairn” referring to a young child, “throng” meaning “busy”, “laik” meaning “play”, and “ummer” – a curious euphemism for “hell”.

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