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Vol 34 No 2, April - June 1996
Page 47


What's Up?
by Anne Rognstad

"Up" is an innocent looking two-letter word, easy to pronounce and to decode. It is commonly defined as "the opposite of down." In truth, however, it is far from being so simple! Upon examination, "up" is every possible part of speech, and a word which appears to live by rules of its own making, if any.

A good dictionary will confirm that "up" is an adverb in 17 different ways, and 16 times an adjective. Among these 33 possibilities are multiple sub-definitions. "Up" is four times a preposition, three times a noun, and at least twice a verb! It is, apparently, beloved by creators of idioms, and "up" happily combines with hundreds of other words to further hinder tidy definitions.

It is one thing to "uphold" a belief, for example, and quite another to "hold up" a bank, or be "held up" in traffic. A "stand-up" comedian might remain an "upstanding" citizen, even while he is sitting or lying down!

It is generally accepted that a person is "up" when he/she is happy, and "down" when sad. However, when life is full of hardships, it is "uphill" all the way. "Downhill" suggests ease, coasting, and that the hard work is behind. "Uppers" (positive experiences or drugs) lead to euphoria; yet, in England, when one is "on his uppers" he is virtually destitute, or "down and out."

It is little wonder that "up"-a tiny useful word-creates problems for the learner of English. There are other nuisances, of course. "Make" and "do" are notorious in idiomatic English, as are "come" and "go." However, "up" is perhaps the most intriguing, since it often either implies or literally means its opposite, "down." Classroom teachers ask: "Please sit down." They also mean: "Sit up straight." Drivers are asked to either "slow up" or "slow down" when entering school zones. "Up" tends to be paired with words to suggest failure: "I screwed up." "I messed up." "I was too uptight."

In combination, "up" can alter its meaning entirely when tenses are changed. "Jennifer was "eating up" the lively conversation! Three hours later, however, she was totally "fed up" with the topic.

"Up" is most interesting in situations in which positioning in a larger word form completely alters its meaning:

The Symphony Conductor, an up-beat sort of fellow, gave the down-beat to the string section and contemplated beating up his wife after rehearsal .

The upkeep on Jon's rundown house was expensive, but he was determined to keep up with the Joneses.

The upshot was this: Wayne had been shot up with both bullets AND heroin.

The boxer knew he had been set up . Hence the upset in the final round.

Jack upended his truck, and ended up in the hospital.

Malcolm sized up the situation, and decided to downsize his business.

The euphemistic expression "throw up" for "to vomit" means the same as the single word "upchuck." There is no hard and fast rule why this is true. There is, however, a legitimate opposite for "throw up" which is "up throw." The latter is a geological expression for the displacement of rock on the side of a fault. A pattern tries to emerge here, but a search for hard rules ends in a "toss up."

"Up" presents us with the challenges of directionality and altitude. Most people driving from Santa Fe to Denver would say they are going "up" to Denver; it is to the North. Purists, however, drive "down" to Denver, for it is 1,000 or more feet lower in elevation. This issue drives still others "up the wall."

Body parts come into play with the word "up." Bill was "down in the mouth" while trying to keep a "stiff upper lip." At least, he wasn't "up in arms." He "bellied up to the bar" and gave the "thumbs up" sign to the bartender. (Incidentally, whether or not Bill "drinks like a fish" is irrelevant here. But he should be happy to not BE a fish, for belly-up in this case would be the end.)

The world of sports has a place for "up." A hitter comes "up to bat." The score might be tied; "Eleven Up." After the game, both players and fans might drink "7-Up" as a quick "pick-me-up."

One must be cautioned, however, about using "pick" and "up" together. A "pickup" is a truck. A "pickup" is an electronic device for amplifying a guitar. A "pickup" is a prostitute.

"Once upon a time" is the classic beginning to children's stories, and this phrase makes them universal. The authors did not want to pin down any single date, period, or era. There are certainly "up"- related idioms which are perhaps timeless, such as "letting down one's hair."

It is probable, however, that certain "up" expressions can and will always be "dated" to some extent. Today (and earlier) one can be "fixed up" for a blind date. One doesn't want to appear "stuck-up" or "uppity."

We "take up" hems on dresses or let them down. We "take up" golf.

When we're funny, we "cut up," and if the joke is funny enough others will "crack up" at it. Meanwhile the police are on the streets "cracking down" on crime, which includes "crack." But that is another story.

Sometimes to "crack up" is to "break down." If a couple thereby "breaks up" as a result, there are possible ways to fix up the situation:

  1. They can kiss and make up (overcome)
  2. S/he can make up a story (invent)
  3. She can more creatively apply her make-up (cosmetics)
  4. One can make up (atone) for past sins.
  5. One can make up (complete) past-due school work which might include a study of the genetic make-up of certain cells (biological building blocks).

Imagine a student of English from a distant land who has mastered both speech patterns and general linguistic principles, encountering the word "UPHOLSTERY."

One can only hope that this student will immediately grasp the root word "holster" and figure out how "up" would clarify the meaning. If the student has, along with studying English, watched many old Westerns on T.V., he or she will easily assume that "upholstery" is keeping the holster (and gun) UP-in the armpit, never risking wearing it on the belt. Then it is up to the well-upholstered gunslinger to show up at the showdown.

What's UP? This question will come up again and again, and perhaps it will be answered in an upcoming issue of this journal! Until then, it's up to you. Ever onward and upward!

Anne Rognstad teaches ESL in the Casper College (Wyoming) Adult Basic Education/ G.E.D. program.


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Vol 34 No 2, April - June 1996
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