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shameless pleading

Up and at ’em

I’ll be Bach.

Dear Word Detective: So, I have long heard the phrase “Up and Adam” which never made sense to me. I was looking into it recently because I was re-watching a Simpsons episode where a Schwarzenegger-like actor kept saying “Up and at them” because he couldn’t get the line right. However, this phrase makes a great deal more sense to me then the former. Googling it reveals it is likely “Up and at ’em.” I was curious if this is the correct phrase and would like to hear about how it came about and how often and how it is incorrectly stated. — Devin.

Good question, and thanks for the term “Schwarzenegger-like.” It has a mordant chuckle baked into it. Speaking of baking, I happened to be sitting in a restaurant in the German Village area of Columbus, Ohio last summer devouring an enormous chocolate cream-puff, when who should amble past our table but Ahnold himself, complete with his retinue of bodyguards. In that one ten-second close-up I learned two new things: (a) he’s much shorter than I had thought, and (b) he’s bright orange. Like a little Teutonic traffic cone.

Thanks to all the people on the internet with nothing better to do, I can now report that the episode of the Simpsons you were watching was from 1995, called “Radioactive Man,” and centers on the making of a film of the (fictional) popular comic book of that title in Springfield. The eponymous superhero in the film is played by Ranier Wolfcastle, a parody of Schwarzenegger who appears in several Simpsons episodes. Apparently, Radioactive Man’s catchphrase is “Up and Atom!”, which makes Simpsonesque sense, but Ranier Wolfcastle, with his obsessive enunciation, insists on saying “Up and at them!” The joke seems to be aimed at people who insist that “up and at ’em” is sub-standard English.

To begin at the beginning, the original phrase is definitely “Up and at ’em.” (“‘Em” is a shortening of “them” dating back to the 14th century). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers two citations for “up and at ’em,” the earlier being from 1909 (“It was always the up-and-at-’em aspect of things that appealed to him.”). There is some debate (see linguist Arnold Zwicky’s blog at arnoldzwicky.wordpress.com/2009/12/17/short-shot-30-up-and-adam/) over whether “Up and Adam” is a conscious joke by people familiar with the phrase or a genuine “eggcorn,” a substitution of a word or phrase based on a misunderstanding (see The Eggcorns Database at eggcorns.lascribe.net for an explanation and examples). The verdict seems to be that most people who write or say “Up and Adam” are joking and know it, but some people have made apparently sincere attempts to connect the phrase to Adam (Garden of Eden, snake, etc.) being told to get busy by God.

Two posters in the forum at the Eggcorn Database mentioned above remember being awakened by their mothers in the morning with the exhortation “Up and Adam!”, and I think I do too. I definitely remember another mock-Biblical reference from my childhood, this one at the close of day. Much of what I supposedly learned in Sunday School is a dim memory, to put it mildly. But the story in the Book of Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the young men consigned to die in a fiery furnace by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (and rescued by an angel) has stuck with me. And it has stuck with me entirely because at bedtime my mother transformed their names into “Shadrach, Meshach, and To Bed We Go!”

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