Why 'up' is the most versatile word in English language

It's the only word in the English language that could be a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, or a preposition

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 10 Nov 2022, 9:14 PM

In a column a few months ago, I observed that while languages don’t have to always be rational, English probably wins the irrationality prize. I gave dozens of examples to prove the point. But such quirks are part of the delight of working with or using the English language.

Among those oddities, I noted that ‘When a house burns up, it burns down’. And I concluded the piece by noting that when I ‘wind up’ my watch, I start it, but when I ‘wind up’ the column, I end it. One word both those examples had in common is arguably the most versatile in the English language — the word ‘up’. It is, as far as I am aware, the only word in the English language that could be a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, or a preposition. Its flexible usage goes far beyond the two examples with which I began this paragraph.

At its simplest, we all understand the word ‘up’ means ‘at the top’ or ‘towards the sky’, as in the simple exhortation to ‘look up’. But ‘look up’ also means something quite different — to check a reference guide for a fact or a meaning. In fact, if you look up the word ‘up’ in a substantial dictionary, you will find it ‘takes up’ a large portion of the page. Some dictionaries provide as many as thirty definitions, depending on the usage of the word in context.

It gets more complicated than that, since ‘up’ features in multiple contexts that have nothing to do with an upward direction. When we awaken in the morning, we ‘wake up’. We go to work because we have to, whether or not we ‘feel up’ to it. Then at a meeting a topic ‘comes up’, and if we think we have something to say about it, we ‘speak up’. And then the note-taker or secretary must ‘write up’ a report on the discussion. If we disagree with her understanding of what was said, we ‘call up’ the secretary. Her apologetic smile might then ‘brighten up’ the office. If she is offended, we might have to ‘make up’ to her. And worse still, if she bursts into tears, it may smudge her ‘make-up’, and that would be all our fault!

When we get home, we find a lot of uses for ‘up’ — if we have ‘worked up’ an appetite, we ‘warm up’ our food, ‘clean up’ the kitchen and ‘lock up’ the house. In our spare time we might ‘polish up’ the silver or ‘fix up’ the place. If we find the bathroom drains are ‘blocked up’, we get a plumber to ‘open up’ the drains. If we decide to go out, we ‘dress up’, ‘line up’ for tickets, and might finish our day with a late drink before the pub or restaurant ‘closes up’ for the night. And if you’ve stayed out too late in a bad neighbourhood, there’s always a risk that you might fall victim to a ‘hold-up’ and be relieved of your wallet at knifepoint, or worse.

As a politician myself, I have many colleagues who are ‘up for election’; some of them prevail easily, but in some cases, it is a ‘toss up’. If they lose, they have to ‘think up’ excuses for their defeat. Perhaps some rival has ‘stirred up’ trouble for them? Mind you, it is never easy to get a politician to ‘open up’ about the real problems! And some of the things they say might ‘crack you up’!

In short, there are plenty of reasons for us to get rather ‘mixed up’ about the many different uses of this simple two-letter word. If you are ‘up to it’, you might try ‘building up’ a list of the many ways you can use the word ‘up’. Or maybe not, since it will ‘take up’ a lot of your time to do that, and you might be tempted to ‘give up’. But if you persist, you may ‘wind up’ with a long list — ‘up to’ thirty, as in this column, or many more. Of course, I can’t oblige you to do this — it’s ‘up to you’!

One could go on and on, but I’ll ‘wrap it up’ for now, since my ‘time is up’...


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