Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

How Many Meanings of “UP”?

Up, up, upLou Ann Freeman finally sent me a really funny essay about the many meanings of the word “up”, so I’ll take the opportunity to write up my thoughts on this subject. It was on my agenda the year I retired from academia, but I never quite found time to look up up. You may very well be among the very first to understand exactly how it operates.

To get us started, here is the beginning of the essay that Lou Ann sent:

  • “People stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite, and think UP excuses.
  • To be dressed is one thing but to be dressed UP  is  special.
  • And this is confusing:  A drain must be opened UP because it is stopped UP.
  • We open UP a store in the morning but we close it UP   at night.
  • We seem to be pretty mixed UP about UP!”

Well, no, we aren’t. It is true that up has several functions. It can be an adverb, as when prices go up. I can be a preposition as when the monkey goes up the flagpole. It is a verb when we up the ante.  Finally, it can be a verbal particle, which is quite different from a preposition, though most prepositions server double duty as a verbal particle.

So, what is a verbal particle? English uses verbal particles the way other Indo-European languages use prefixes.  The English verb chase out corresponds to the German hinausjagen made up of the prefix hinaus “out” + jagen “to chase”. In Russian gnat’ means “to chase” and “chase out” = vygnat’ with the prefix vy- “out”.

So out in chase out is a verbal particle, predictable by the fact that it does not require an object and moves around freely in a sentence: “I chased the cat out” or “I chased out the cat.” The verbal particle up behaves similarly: “I dressed up the cat” or “I dressed the cat up.”

Since particles behave like prefixes and suffixes in other languages, it means that they are not real words but function words, words that represent grammatical categories, like past tense, plural, and comparative. Up the verbal particle expresses the perfect aspect, a verb category that indicates a completed action. It is very consistent in this expression.

In most cases, it can be translated as “completely” for this adverb indicates the absolute completion of an action. So the difference between opening a store and opening it up a can, let’s say, is the fact that the can has been completely opened. A drain that is clogged up is one that is completely clogged. (A clogged drain might still let some water pass.) If you dress, you put on clothes but if you dress up, you are completely dressed, that is, as best you can be dressed.

Before I finish up, let me say this: I enjoyed Lou Ann’s essay; the writer brought up about as much humor from this misconception as may be found there. However, when properly used, language is very consistent. It is about 2-3% irregular but, considering the species that uses it, that is a modest deviation.  Up is not one of the irregularities.

4 Responses to “How Many Meanings of “UP”?”

  1. b johnson Says:

    I’d like to put up my two bits here. In the first ling course I took, the professor put the following sentences up on the blackboard:

    He ate up the cake
    He ate the cake up
    The professor then observed both sentences mean the same thing. But then he put up
    He ate up the street
    He ate the street up
    and asked “What up? Why don’t these sentences mean the same thing?”
    And I put the same question up for consideration, Dr Beard.
    Which came first the syntax or the semantics?

  2. Les Brown Says:

    I’ve always been amused (bemused?) by the fact that you have to cut a tree down before you cut it up…

  3. Robert Beard Says:

    These comments escaped my attention, probably because the brain surgeon addled my brain. However, B. Johnson confuses prepositions with particles. “He ate [up the stree]” involves the participle. “He [u]ate[/u] the cake [u]up[/u]” is a particle, which can either follow the verb (He ate up the cake) or appear at end of the verb phrase {He ate the cake up].

    As for Les Brown, here is a man who loves word play as much as I do–and he makes a beautiful play here.

  4. James Reilly Says:

    So, you are correct in as far as it goes. The other way that can be used as “ultimately” or to assign initiative. For instance if it is “Up to him” or he is “Up for it”. Likewise if “Put it up” or if one “takes it up”. It’s a very fun word.

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