What’s up with up


The word ‘up’ in English has many uses and functions: it occurs as an adverb  (we need to liven up our presentation),  a preposition  (the mouse crawled up the drainpipe), an adjective (the mood was definitely up at the meeting), a noun (we’ve had some ups and downs with this thing), and even a verb  (they’ve upped the ante).  The Online Etymology Dictionary cites the earliest (1560) recorded use of ‘up’ in the verb sense as meaning ‘to drive and catch swans’.  Man, those were some gutsy lads and lasses bringing that verb into the world; if you’ve ever had a close encounter with these powerhouse waterfowl, you’ll appreciate just how gutsy. 🙂 The adverbial sense which meant ‘to rise up physically, get on your feet’ occurred in expressions such as ‘up and leave’ and apparently expanded to allow ‘she up and told him’  and  ‘they up and died’.  These sound decidedly old-fashioned nowadays.

Nevertheless,  ‘up’ continues to expand its domain, including its appearance in compound words. But what exactly is the semantics of ‘up’ in these various compounds — are they extrapolating or employing one of the uses from the existing inventory of senses that ‘up’ possesses?  Let’s consider some examples. These, by the way, are nominalizations — nouns that refer to events or activities. Verby stuff in noun’s clothing.

  • holdup – can mean either a delay in some process or undertaking, or an armed robbery.  Why ‘up’ here?  Does the robbery sense refer to the victims positioning their arms up in the air and not moving? Is the delay sense an abstraction of the ‘not moving’ implication of the robbery sense? Or, is the above explanation a just-so story?
  • hangup – can mean a telephone call where one of the parties doesn’t speak, but just terminates the call, or it can mean a personal phobia, concern, worry. What does ‘up’ contribute to the meaning in these cases? If I contemplate it much, I almost prefer ‘down’ to ‘up’  — he has a lot of hangdowns from his childhood.  What do you think?
  • flareup – or is this one ‘flare-up’? The use of a hyphen is an interesting indicator of how strongly bonded the components of a compound word are felt to be – is it still more of a phrase in the language, or is it a word. Would ‘flare-out’ work as well here? My intuitions feel ‘flare-out’ as an ending of a flare incident, and ‘flare-up’ as the beginning of one. Maybe ‘burnout’ is contributing to this distinction, but ‘burn-up’ doesn’t follow the pattern. So, the intuitions are there, but the semantic ground on which they stand is a bit shaky.
  • hookup – as a nominalization, this word has come to mean a casual sexual encounter.  An earlier, more generalized (non-sexual) sense of getting together occurs only as a verb, ‘we hooked up with them at the airport’.  A ‘hookup at the airport’ means something else. Again, why not ‘hook-in’ or ‘hook-on’?  What is ‘up’ signifying here that ‘hook’ is not conveying by itself?
  • meetup – an impromptu gathering, often in a public place. ‘Up’ sounds so natural in this fairly new compound. Is it simply by analogy to the earlier ‘hookup’? It might have been ‘meet-in’, after all, by analogy to the ‘be-ins’ and ‘love-ins’ coined a generation ago.

Could it be that ‘up’ in the cases above is an abstract ‘event’ indicator? The expression ‘what’s up’ is close to ‘what’s happening’, and ‘happen’ is about as pure an event/occurrence verb as English owns.  ‘What’s up with John’ carries this sense, too.

‘Up’ as the prefix of compounds is more uniform in meaning; ‘uptown’ and ‘upriver’ both refer to directional locations, and ‘upscale’ and ‘upmarket’ are metaphoric extensions of direction used in a quantitative context. Likewise for ‘upbeat’ (meaning happy, exuberant) as a direction along an emotional scale. And the ultimate stretch with this notion — ‘on the up and up’ (honest, sincere).  Notice these words are all adjectives, not nominalizations.  Does ‘up’ in the context of ‘John wasn’t up for going out last night’ illustrate the adjectival sense of enthusiasm, related to ‘upbeat’?  Or is it an abstract ‘event-available’ sense, more closely aligned with ‘meetup’ and ‘what’s up’?

We’ll take a look at some of the other prepositional/adverbial forms in later posts.

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2 Responses to What’s up with up

  1. From the same root as English up comes open. To open a container is to allow the contents to come up, so to speak.

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