Monday, October 22, 2007

What's Up With Up?

In one more memorable episode of Seinfeld, Kramer is visiting Jerry in the hospital. Injured when a fork fell on his head, Jerry listens as Kramer scolds him for not ducking.
“You know, Jerry, when somebody yells ‘heads up,’ you’re not actually supposed to look up.”

Although I am setting out in this short discourse to take pot shots at some of the needless uses of up, I just gave you two examples of when the little word is needed. I’m pleased to see that Webster’s New World dictionary backs me up, then goes on for six column inches of definitions followed by three and a half pages of words with up as a prefix or suffix, some hyphenated, some not.
These established examples have earned the favor of Webster, so we can set them aside for now; we’re on safari for up’s that are just taking space…make that taking up space.

You may have already concluded that I am just plain daffy, picking on the little thing – only two letters it is. But then I remember a scrupulous editor who long ago reminded me that each word requires inspection. Does it add? Does it detract? Can we do without it? He reminded me of professor William Strunk, Jr., author of The Elements of Style. Today, Strunk’s stabbing finger command continues to guide the pens of editors everywhere: “Omit needless words.”
Taking Aim

Enter my candidate critters, those up’s that continue to show up in the crosshairs. I’m guessing there are many more:

Listen up, write up, type up, bone up, fess up, button up, slather up, read up, eat up, burn up, sign up, wrap up, open up, close up, light up, *gear up, hurry up, hustle up, fill up, call up, fix up, wake up, save up, pay up, use up, brighten up, summon up, up and running

* Tom Sizemore in Saving Private Ryan: “You heard the man…gear up!”

These and others like them may be acceptable when we’re writing dialogue or slang, but I still find myself casting a suspicious eye – especially when I come across a debatable candidate like hook up. Webster votes for physically hooking something up, like a trailer or a power cord; in another definition, he calls it “an alliance or agreement between two governments.”
Today, we have a slang variant with two working definitions: one says it means people getting together for any number of reasons; the other says it means men and women getting together to get it on together. No matter. The hanky panky version will probably fade. Given my druthers, I would reserve this hook and its up for the trailer and the power cord.
Given the same druthers, I would also question the familiar conjure up. I don't think that up adds anything to the act of conjuring, but Webster says hands off. It stays.

In the shoot-‘em-up film, Training Day, Denzel Washington keeps telling his trainee, Ethan Hawke, to “Man up.” Are we to understand that he wants Ethan’s character to stop whining and toughen up? Like man up, and the slang example hook up, any offbeat up gets a free pass when a writer chooses slang intentionally and not carelessly.
But surely there must be a better way of telling someone to get tough. I can't see Oprah gently patting a teary female guest on the arm: "C'mon now, woman up."

Recently, while having lunch at an upscale bistro, I noticed the menu item “Cowboy Up.” It’s a burger bathed in barbecue sauce and other condiments. I didn’t order it, nor do I have the slightest idea what the name refers to. I imagine the bistro’s intent was to serve a burger that would make men feel like the Marlboro Man, even without a horse. In case you’re wondering…there was no Cowgirl Up. Maybe the bistro owner doesn't want to recognize anyone who wears make-up.

In his book, The Writer’s Art, James J. Kilpatrick sees our little critter as “…one of those idiomatic barnacles that cling to the keel of a sentence. To be sure, up serves a useful purpose in throw up, but ought to be pruned from rise up in wrath, saddle up the horse, sign up the contract, and finish up the task. When you look down on an up in your copy, see if the up can’t be lifted.” I'm guessing Kilpatrick would look down on the following up, inserted by the Reuters News Service: "...the government is going to buy up $15 billion of abandoned homes."

Standing Up for a Few Up’s

Among the long list of O.K. up’s in the dictionary, and in our spoken vocabularies, there are special cases that deserve mention. One that will endure I’m sure is ole floppy ears’s carrot-munching greeting, “Ehh…What’s up, doc?” Another phrase that’s been around a while is knocked up, brought to prominence in 2007 with the hit comedy, Knocked Up. British dictionarys include it, but over there it has less to do with lovin’ it up and more to do with waking up. For the Brits, knocked up means to interfere with one’s sleep by knocking on the door.

I should also mention words with up prefixes, words such as upbeat, upgrade, update, and upkeep. I can’t argue with those examples– and there are many. And there is a need, I suppose, for the up's in idioms such as give up the ghost, the jig is up, live it up, and it's up to you. Kindergarten teachers and parents with small children say they have a need of their own: they need the up that goes with sit.

As long as we’re handing out free passes, we ought to give one to stick up. After all, what literate bank robber would hand a teller a note that says, “This is a stick!” And if we waive stick up, we might as well waive the past tense, as voiced by Harrison Ford to Anne Heche in the film Six Days, Seven Nights (“You’re stuck up!”). As writers, our job is to train our critical eye, revisit the context, and stick with the up’s that help us fulfill our purpose.

One unanimous keeper is Winston Churchill’s memorable response to a junior officer who had just read one of his memos. In this example the issue is grammar, but who can forget Winston’s witty use of an up. After reading the memo, the officer thought it necessary to tell the Prime Minister that he had ended a sentence with a preposition. “This,” piped Sir Winston, “is exactly the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put.”

Finally, it was not my intent to stir up trouble for lovers of up; it’s just that I’m a tad fed up with needless up’s. But then, I’m never going to round them all up, anyway, so I might as well lighten up, look up the nearest pub, and belly up to the bar – assuming the joint hasn’t gone belly up. Sounds like a good idea, as my editor just told me to shut up.


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