he who is not one up is one down
February 9, 2018 2:48 PM   Subscribe

In discussing the family of phrases "messed up"/"screwed up"/"f-cked up" (but also "clean up", "make up") with an English language learner coworker, he raised the question "Why 'up'?" None of us native English speakers could formulate a good answer, so I turn to you all. Why "up"?
posted by 4rtemis to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Not an expert in language, but I've read many AskMe's just like this one, so here goes:
1/ there's no overarching principle, these expressions just grew in the language; and/or
2/ "up" seems to me to imply a converting of the thing from one state to another state; i.e., a thing was normal, now it's changed, namely screwed up; and
3/ the foregoing may be incomplete or uninformed.

BTW, I understand being stressed, but why "stressed out"?
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:01 PM on February 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Phrasal verbs make no sense when analysed. They're just one of the things that exist to annoy language learners.
posted by scruss at 3:17 PM on February 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

For me, it's always carried the sense of the situation being broken up and things being thrown up into the air by the problem, but, yeah, it's really just idiomatic and not susceptible of rational analysis.
posted by praemunire at 3:20 PM on February 9, 2018

In a number of phrasal verbs, the "up" marks "telicity" which means something like the "finished" nature of the action. I guess "eat up" is the clearest example of the ones you noted (it implies that there's nothing of the edible stuff left). In other cases, like "threw up"... who knows.
posted by karbonokapi at 3:32 PM on February 9, 2018 [15 favorites]

Ditto what karbonokapi said.

Wiktionary says: "Used as an aspect marker to indicate a completed action or state. Thoroughly, completely." Which makes a sort of sense to me (though I never would have put it that way, haha).

You and your coworker may also just have to accept that "mess up," "f*ck up," etc are verbs that happen to come with a certain preposition, like German, another Germanic language, which has tons of prepositional verbs that just don't work without their associated preposition.
posted by wintersonata9 at 3:44 PM on February 9, 2018 [7 favorites]

The way it was explained to me a long time ago was "it's a perfective, much like apo- in Greek." English Prepositions Explained is a source aimed at language learners that appears to say more.
posted by Wobbuffet at 4:04 PM on February 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Well, “throw up” is a bit different in that it probably has a non-arbitrary semantic component. Stuff comes up out of your stomach. Meanwhile, “throw down” invokes a metaphorical gauntlet. If we had evolved from rhino-like animals who lowered their heads to vomit and tossed their horns to issue a challenge, presumably the meanings would be reversed.
posted by No-sword at 4:07 PM on February 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

We “cut someone down to size”, “take someone down a peg” , declare a winner “hands down”, “buckle down”, “bring the house down”, and “go down the shore.”
posted by Ideefixe at 5:10 PM on February 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

Is it because they end in the letter d and u just rolls off the tongue better?

Like maybe I’ll substitute “out” for “up” and “off.”

The vowel after the consonant has something to do with it methinks.
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:18 PM on February 9, 2018

Not sure what languagehat et al feel about George Lakeoff, but his book, Woman, Fire, and Dangerous Things talks about metaphors and made sense to me as well as being completely entertaining. One thing he discusses is that the concept of quantities involves the well-known idea that MORE IS UP, LESS IS DOWN. Chaos or a higher state of entropy would be up, so things are messed up, f-ed up, or screwed up.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:33 PM on February 9, 2018 [7 favorites]

Now I'm thinking about the difference between "screwed up" and "screwed over".
posted by Lexica at 7:45 PM on February 9, 2018

I've always been stuck by the arbitrariness of these things, e.g., in current slang, "I'm up for it" and "I'm down for it" mean the same thing. I second Lakoff's work for making some sense out of all this. He has another book called On Metaphor that I'd recommend.
posted by zebrabananafish at 10:39 PM on February 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think the answers here have it pretty much sewed up, and I can't come up with much else. I'm not really broken up about it, though. Not like when my car broke down.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:44 AM on February 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Your coworker may find http://ell.stackexchange.com/ useful.

https://english.stackexchange.com is also a good destination.
posted by WCityMike at 9:04 AM on February 10, 2018

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