Friday, December 08, 2006

What goes up ...

An open call. First: what exactly does the up in phrasal verbs like look up mean? Some examples:
  • work up [a solution]
  • rustle up [some chow]

and also:

  • toughen up [those raw recruits]
  • bulk up
  • eat it up[, yum]

... and plenty more that I can't think of at the moment. It seems clear that there's a difference in what up means in these two sets of examples.

Anyway, I found a couple of examples recently that suggest that the up particle is still going strong in producing new phrasal verbs.

The first case was at work, where we were having a little discussion about programmer jargon. (If you're not a programmer, just bear with me here a minute.) In one of our programming languages (C#), you create a new ... uh ... thing using the new keyword. (t = new Timer, for example). In another of our languages (VB), a similar function is accomlished with the keyword dim (which originally meant dimension).

Blah, blah. This is background for noting that it's pretty common programmer talk to say something like "Well, you new up an instance of the timer ..." or "You dim up a timer" or the like. My sharp-eared colleague David was recently at a lecture where the speaker was talking about some clever stuff that was going on behind the scenes when you program. The speaker's exact words were: "We essentially magic this class up for you."

Nice, eh? To magic as a transitive verb, and a new phrasal verb to boot. How flexible she is, the English! The up particle in these cases -- new up, dim up, magic up -- seems to be in the spirit of the first examples (work up, rustle up), adding a connotation (or even denotation) of creation. Interestingly, sometimes the up particle is optional (new, dim), other times not (work, rustle, magic).

Ok, so that's one. Onward. I was reading a column in the Seattle Times where the author was writing about a local pastor who is known for preaching that men's masculinity is threatened. This was the line that interested me:

The gist: Many men have become female appeasers who need to, well, man up.

To man up = to become more masculine. This use of up is related to the second examples (toughen up, bulk up, ?eat up). These verbs are intransitive (or can be). I'm not convinced that eat up belongs in the same category, unless the common thread is one of, dunno, completeness. To eat up means to finish eating something. Up is optional in toughen up; is it in to bulk up? Do they both suggest a kind of completeness, or perhaps a degree?

I confuse myself easily with these speculations. I could, of course, go look it up; I'm sure these are well-understood usages. My point, really, was just to note that I'd stumbled onto these novel usages of up, which I've now ... wait for it ... written up.

Update 14 Aug 2007: Here's one courtesy of our friends at the Language Log: "[y]ou can google up many other variants."