What’s Up?  And What’s “Up”?

A recent magazine article got me thinking about the word “up.”

Such a simple, two-letter word.

With a simple, straightforward meaning.

If someone says, “Look!  Up in the sky!” then we do this:

And if you walk up some stairs…

…it’s pretty clear which direction you’re going.

In cowboy movies, when the sheriff says, “Put your hands up!” the bad guys don’t look at each other and say,

Cowboy #1:  What does he mean, exactly, by “hands up”?
Cowboy #2:  “Up” is an existential thing.

Of course they don’t!

The bad guys put their hands up, just like the sheriff said:

Simple.  Straightforward.  Yes?


We use the word up in many ways that don’t mean up at all.

So many ways that our usage of up has become ubiquitous and nonsensical.

For example, why, when Gloria Swanson spoke that memorable line in the movie Sunset Boulevard

…why did she say, “Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup”?

I get the “close” part – this is where the camera focus moves into close range. 

But what’s the “up” part mean? 

“Up” where?

Why are we sometimes – regardless of our age – told to “grow up”?

“Up” where?

If someone is unhappy, why are they “broken up”?

What’s up about being broken?

Here are more ups we use without thinking about what we’re saying:

Grownup.  Throw up.  Fix-up and fixer-upper. 

Here’s another variation on that last one:

And how about this one:

The “meet” part, sure – it’s a website where you meet people.

But what’s up with the “up” part?

The list goes on:  Mixed up.  Wake up.  Speak up.  Look up (in the dictionary).  Write up (a report).  Back up (a car).  Stir up (trouble).  Think up (excuses).  End up (in jail). 

We make a distinction between being “dressed” and “dressed up,” but why does adding up make that distinction?

“Dressed” (left) and“ dressed up.”

And how about “makeup,” as in this stuff:

I guess we apply cosmetics to “make” a new face, but…

Why up?

Let’s consider a few more:  Dry up.  Clear up.  Shut up. 

But we don’t leave it at that.

No, we humans are creative.  So we take our ubiquitous and nonsensical use of up and add another word or two, like so:

Pick him up.

Wrap it up.

Please wipe that up.

Just make it up.

These examples, according to my research, are called “phrasal verbs,” and to qualify, the construction goes as follows:

Verb + pronoun + adverb.

So, “Pick him up.” Pick is the verb; him is the pronoun; up is the adverb.

If, declared one website, “the object is a pronoun, it must come before the adverb” to qualify as a phrasal verb.

And if you foolishly dare to mix things up, the grammar police will come after you…

But – since we’ve said these phrasal verbs for so long and in the same way, it’s unthinkable we’ll ever say them differently.

If someone said, “I’ll pick up him” or, “Just make up it,” we’d no doubt tell them that their grammar needs some cleanup.

So, that’s my take on up, a not-so-simple, two-letter word for which I found at least 21 definitions in the following categories:  adverb, preposition, adjective, verb, and noun (informal).

Enough said.

Time to wrap up this.

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