9.21.2018

Getting Down with “Uppers”

Recently I was reading a Latin American novel in a British translation and ran across the expression “on his uppers.” I’ve seen variations of this phrase before, always in negative contexts. It makes little intuitive sense to an American for whom “uppers” are usually stimulants or otherwise elevating experiences. The common contexts for this expression suggest something more like what we call “downers.”

This time I decided to check it out.

It does turn out that “uppers” is British public school slang for students of “upper schools,” sort of like our “secondary schools.” But that can’t be the meaning here.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms provides a clear explanation:
Poor, in reduced circumstances, as in . . . The Smiths try to hide the fact that they're on their uppers. First recorded in 1886, this metaphoric term alludes to having worn out the soles of one’s shoes so badly that only the top portions remain.
So it means roughly the same thing as British “skint” (US “broke”}.

Other sources provide the fuller but seemingly paradoxical form of the expression “down on one’s uppers.”

Having recently discovered a hole in the sole of my expensive Ecco shoes, I can understand continuing to use worn footwear; but one wouldn’t continue to wear uppers if the soles were completely gone, so this has to be a joking exaggeration enhanced by the addition of “down to.”

The expression is so widespread in UK English that I wonder whether all speakers realize the allusion to worn shoes embodied in it.

I also found that in my copy of the 1997 American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the  proofreaders had missed a slip-up in their definition. The reason I inserted the ellipsis in my quotation is that the actual sentence begins: “Poor, in reduced circumstances, as in as in. . . ” Repetitions like this are notoriously hard to spot, but still—what a downer.




9.18.2018

Taking Care

Last night at the Emmy awards, the director of Game of Thrones told author George R. R. Martin, “Thank you for letting us take care of your people.”

Given the low survival rate of characters in the series, I take it this is the same form of the expression as when a Mafia hitman says, “Don’t worry about those guys any more, boss. I took care of them.”

8.26.2018

Rails and Walls

In a story about newly registered young voters in the New York Times (8/26/18) a young man is quoted as saying “The country has just gone off the walls since Trump got elected.”

This didn’t sound quite right to me. The usual expression is “off the wall”—singular—not “walls.”

In addition “off the wall” is normally used as adjectival phrase modifying some noun: “He made some off-the-wall remarks.”

(Unless, of course, you’re discussing handball.)

It refers to erratic, eccentric, unexpected actions. Occurring first in the 1950’s, it may have referred to the erratic, unpredictable behavior of balls bouncing off walls, such as baseball outfield fences.

Then I realized that the young man perhaps had this phrase confused with the much older one, “off the rails.” It originated a century earlier when everyone was aware that a railroad engine running off the rails could cause a true disaster.  It is used to describe things going not just unpredictably, but catastrophically.

Its close relation is “trainwreck.” So a political campaign that goes off the rails will probably end in a trainwreck.

Young people born in the 21st century probably don’t have railroads much in mind. Having heard the expression “off the rails” and confusing it with “off the wall,” the young man probably carried the plural S over onto the "wall” and came up with the expression “gone off the walls.”

But there's also the expression “bouncing off the walls,” usually describing childish hyperactivity. That could also be the source of the plural form.

Whatever he meant, congratulations to him for getting registered. We need a lot more young people to follow his example.

Subsaharan Suffixes

I recently noticed in a story in the New York Times about efforts to prevent migrants from crossing the Sahara to reach Europe that the adjective used in connection with the country involved was “Nigerien.” For a moment I thought shouldn’t that be “Nigerian”?

But then I realized the story was about Niger, where the official national language is French, so the French suffix -ien makes perfect sense; whereas the official national language of Nigeria is English, so the -ian suffix is correct.

Plus—that way you can tell them apart, right?

Good to know.

8.13.2018

“Good” Usage or Just “Fair”?

Recently I heard someone being interviewed on NPR say “that’s all fair and well.” It took a few moments for me to figure out what bothered me about this phrase; then I remembered that the usual version is “all well and good.”

But that led me to wonder what the distinction might be between “well” and “good.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms seems to think there is none, calling it “a redundant phrase.”

The Oxford English Dictionary offers no comments on the meaning of the phrase, but notes that it first appears in 1548 as “wel and good.”

At first it seems to have been merely an especially emphatic way of saying “it’s all good,” but by the late 19th century it had become mostly used in connection with some qualification or comparison, as in sentences like “that’s all well and good, but we need to actually do something now that we’ve discussed it for two hours.”

Some sources suggest it now is used only in this sense, to prepare the way for a negative qualifying statement.

From the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary:
all well and good (informal)
quite good, but not exactly what is wanted
That's all well and good, but why didn't he call her to say so?
From the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English:
that’s/it’s all well and good
spoken especially British English used to say that something is good or enjoyable, but it also has some disadvantages 
 Going off on foreign holidays is all well and good, but you’ve got to get back to reality sometime.

From the “Learn English Free” list of “Common Mistakes and Confusing Words in English”:

You may hear the saying "That's all well and good." It means something is basically ok, but with some shortcomings.
Building your own website is all well and good, but how will you encourage visitors?
There are occasional exceptions to this pattern, but most often “well and good” is followed by “but.”

The Oxford Advanced American Dictionary pairs this expression with “that’s all very well,” which means the same thing.

So how did “fair” creep into the NPR interviewee’s version? My suspicion is that he was influenced by the similar phrase “that's fair enough,” as in this comment in the Urban Dictionary about Richard Dawkins:
You may disagree with his views, and that's fair enough, but to insult him because he says things you don't like just makes you look petulant.

Sometimes this mutates into “all fair enough,” which brings it closer to “all well and good.”

Of course “fair enough” has an even more common positive use signifying agreement with a proposition.
You say you cooked dinner so I should do the dishes? Fair enough.

With nothing more to say on this subject, I bid you farewell.


7.22.2018

One Small Example

I think a lot of cartoonists use strips like this to vent their own frustrations at English misusage while at the same time seeming to make fun of picky people.

This One Big Happy strip is a good example of what I mean.