chatting up and pulling

This week's The K Chronicles comic has Keith of the Chronicles listing the great things about his experience at a comics convention, including:

This American use of chat up, meaning 'chat with' is new to me, but Jonathan Lighter, author of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, says that it's been in AmE slang for a few years.

I can think of two possible routes by which this might have come into AmE. One is that it's just another case of putting up after a verb, as in eat up, drink up, call up, smarten up, etc. This up usually has a 'completive' effect--e.g. drink up involves and focus(s)es on the finishing of the drink. It seems unlikely that up has this effect in AmE chat up, since there's no clear point at which chat can be completed--one can always move on to another topic and chat some more. (Incidentally, my students claim that Americans use VERB+up constructions like eat up more than the British do. I think they may just be reacting to the artificiality of the example sentences I use in class, but maybe they're right.)

The other possibility is that this chat up came in some convoluted way from BrE. Here's the scenario I imagine. Some Americans hear British people saying chat up. They think it sounds cool (as British things often sound cool to Americans), so they start saying chat up too. The only problem is that they didn't appreciate what chat up meant in its original context, so they start using it just to mean 'chat with'. This kind of thing happens often when words are borrowed from one language/dialect to another. If you don't know the meaning of a word, there are usually several things in the context that it could mean--so you go for the one that makes most sense to you. If you then start using the word with that misapprehended meaning to people who don' t know that it means something else in the source language, then the word comes to have the new meaning in the target language. In the case of chat up this would be easily done. Here's the scene. Some friends are in a nightclub. One friend rejoins the group and a British friend teases him with:
I saw you chatting up that girl
The meaning 'chatting with' makes perfect sense in this context, but the British friend would have really meant 'I saw you hitting on (or flirting with) that girl.' Hence BrE chat-up line = AmE pick-up line.

Sounds like a good story to me, at least. But very difficult to prove.

I can't mention chat up without mentioning a related piece of BrE, pull, i.e. to get the desired effect of one's chat-up line. The verb pull can be used transitively or intransitively, and it can also be used as a definite noun, especially in the phrase on the pull:

Cilla's not best pleased that she didn't pull a fella when she was away on honeymoon with Yana. She reckons she's got 'married woman' written all over her and that's what's scaring them off. --Corrie Blog
Kareena implores Tariq to come clean about their relationship. She won't let Ash dictate who she can see. He's not keen, so suggests that they keep it quiet for now. She has no idea that he's planning to pull at the party. --Eastenders episode guide
And over in Mike’s apartment, Mike is confused at Leanne being in his home. She is dressed in just a towel and is on her way to have a shower, when Mike calls a friend and asks if he was out on the pull last night. Mike believes that he has had a one night stand with Leanne and makes a move on her. She recoils in horror and tries to explain that she is his son’s girlfriend, but poor Mike is left more confused than ever. --Corrie Blog

In BrE, one can also pull a pint (= 'fill a pint glass with beer/ale from a tap') or pull a face (=AmE make a face). There are a lot of pull phrasal verbs that were originally American--for example pull out, as in Should we pull out of Iraq?. Most of these are used in the UK now, so not so interesting to us here. Have any readers noticed AmE uses of pull that are more mysterious to non-AmE speakers?


  1. I wonder if the reverse of your chat up example happened with knock up... perhaps an unsuspecting Brit heard "he knocked her up" in conversation and decided to bring the phrase to England.

  2. Very doubtful, as the British sense of knock up ('to awaken by knocking') is about 200 years older than the American 'get pregnant' sense!

  3. 'Pull a face' is something I didn't know we said differently, until a Us/Swedish friend of mine was reading some of my fiction, wherein the main character and his brothers kept 'pulling faces' at each other :)

  4. Not sure if these are mysterious to non-Americans or not, but here are some uses of pull:

    pull an all-nighter
    pull-off (road)
    pull-tie (ribbed plastic tie)
    pull someone's leg
    pull strings

  5. Here's a more recent one, emerging from the blogging world: pull a post. I suspect that is used everywhere but who knows where it originated.

  6. Jen, does pull here mean "withdraw"? If so, I think this sense has been around for a long time in the off-line world and has simply made the switch to the Web. From the New Oxford American Dictionary:

    informal: cancel or withdraw (an entertainment or advertisement) : the gig was pulled at the first sign of difficulty.
    • withdraw (a player) from a game : four of the leading eight runners were pulled.

    (To the list of things that can be "pulled" in this way I would have to add 'an article intended for publication': Her story was pulled at the last minute because it was deemed too controversial.)

  7. Some more pull phrases used in U.S. English:

    pull no punches
    pull a fast one
    pull a stunt
    pull oneself up by one's bootstraps
    pull the wool over one's eyes
    pull the plug on
    pull rank
    take a pull (on a cigarette, etc.)

    Are these all transparent to the non-Americans here?

    BTW, Lynne, your example of pull used as a noun seems like a special case, being part of the fixed phrase "on the pull." Could one use this sense of pull as a noun in BrE in a non-idiomatic context? Like, could one say, "She chatted up a dozen men but didn't manage a pull"? Or, "He woke up with Mary, his pull from the night before"?

  8. Hello Carl (my neighbor to the north... I'm in New Mexico). Yes, you are right. Pulling a post means to withdraw it.

    Speaking of chatting, is "chatty Cathy" ever used in the UK to describe a talkative person?

  9. Carl,

    I had written on the pull as an idiom, and then I found some examples without the 'on', but now for the life of me I can't find them again.

    Here are a couple of examples from the OED where it does mean the person who's been pulled:

    1969 FABIAN & BYRNE Groupie xxx. 219 ‘I'm not going to sleep with you.’..‘Why not?’ ‘Because I'm not an easy pull.’ 1973 M. AMIS Rachel Papers 33 A mental chant, timor mortis conturbat me, and I began on my clumsiest pull ever. Ibid. 37 It was so obviously me and my pull and Geoffrey and his pull getting together to plan a spotty removal to someone's house.

    Jen, Chatty Cathy does seem to be used here. The doll was sold here too.

    As for all these pull phrases--my query was more particularly whether any non-US speakers could tell us any they've heard that they found strange. We could go on quite a while listing uses of pull. The OED has four pages of tiny type on the subject.

  10. > my students claim that Americans use VERB+up constructions like eat up more than the British do

    Certainly "listen up!" sounded very American to me when I first heard it (possibly in an imported police TV series). Could there be a slight German influence on American expressions of this type?

    On a different subject: I think "wash up" means different things on each side of the Atlantic?

  11. I'm going to wash up in AmE would mean 'I'm going to wash my hands/myself', whereas in BrE it means 'I'm going to wash the dishes' (AmE = do the dishes), though one often says do the washing-up.

    Better Half's company produced the audio material for a British series called Listen up!, so although it it may be new here, it's certainly used.

  12. Yes, it's certainly used, but I think it's probably a recent transatlantic import.

  13. > As for all these pull phrases--my query was more particularly whether any non-US speakers could tell us any they've heard that they found strange.

    No, none of them seem strange to me.

    Another one for the list: 'He pulled a sickie' = 'He pretended to his employers that he was too ill to attend work'.

    Also, about pulling a pint: if you consider the design of a British beer pump with its foot-long handle, you realize the phrase is literal, not figurative. The bar person has to pull back on it with some effort.

  14. There was one that I always thought not so much mysterious as curious: pull when used in a construction like "we're all pulling for you" (i.e. cheering you on/with you in spirit, etc). To my (Australian) ears, this has always had something of a masturbatory ring to it, as it were. Is it used with any hint of a double entendre in AmE, or am I reading too much into it?

    1. I can only agree with you. "Arise, ye wankers of the worrrld!"

  15. Definitely no double entendre in American English. We're pulling for you is a terribly wholesome thing to say.

  16. > Another one for the list: 'He pulled a sickie' = 'He pretended to his employers that he was too ill to attend work'.

    This is not used in AmE; we would say, "He called in sick."

  17. I don't think you would pull a sickie, I think you would be more likely to throw one.

  18. People do pull sickies in the UK, slightly more than they throw them, it seems. Googling .uk addresses only gives 413 sickies pulled and 321 thrown.

  19. I think "We're all pulling for you" is a rowing metaphor, though I admit I have no evidence whatever.

  20. Growing up in North Carolina, we used to say that somebody "got pulled" to mean he was stopped by a policeman for a traffic violation, usually speeding. "Damn, I got pulled last night. The cop gave me a ticket."

  21. In Australian English, to "pull a sickie" implies deception, as in "to pull a fast one"

    In a comment above Carl Burnett said:
    This is not used in AmE; we would say, "He called in sick."

    Does the American expression also imply deceit, or could it also be used to describe when some-one is legitimately ill?

  22. You would call in sick in AmE in either situation. Pull a sickie definitely does have a 'deceptive' intention.

  23. Is a chat-up line and a pick-up line really the same thing? I've always thought a pick-up line has much stronger connotations of seeking instant results, whereas a chat-up line can be part of a more long-term strategy of initiating romantic interest, or testing romantic compatibility - it doesn't necessarily imply an expectation to walk out of the room together. But this distinction may be an illusion due to "pick-up line" being a little foreign to me.

    Personally, I would never speak of "pulling" in a romantic sense, because the word has very manipulative connotations that I find distasteful.

    Speaking of sex words, I have a theory about the well-known Australian slang "root" meaning "have sex", which causes hilarity whenever Americans talk about rooting for a sports team (Australians would say "barracking", assuming they don't mean having sex for money and donating the proceeds to a sports team). In the classic Australian childrens' book "Snugglepot and Cuddlepie" by May Gibbs, the fictional characters have their own slang, including "Good root!" as an exclamation signifying pleasure and excitement. It's easy to imagine a scenario in which a pair of teenagers jocularly exclaim "Good root!" after sex with reference to the book, and that, I imagine, was the genesis of the term.

  24. I agree about chat-up line/pick-up line--they're near-equivalents rather than direct translations.

    I'd have thought that root would come from sticking one's root in someone. It has a phonetic similarity to rut, which might help it along.

  25. US here. I thought to chat someone up means to talk them into something via a lot of talking. Am I completely mistaken?

  26. Maybe in its uses in the US(?), but in the UK, it's definitely about talking them into liking you as a potential romantic, or at least sexual, interest.

  27. I would readily understand the romantic meaning because it fits into the broader pattern, though I would expect a non-trivial amount of chatting to be involved (a single pickup line would not qualify as chatting someone up)

  28. The commenters on this blog sure can chat up a storm. :)

  29. One of the difficult things about language is that you can often sense that something is not quite right before you can precisely identify and articulate it.

    To me, 'chat up' and 'chat with' have slightly different connotations. 'Chat up' seems to imply a sense of purpose. You go over to a person and you deliberately start up a conversation, try to get them talking. There's something you want out of the conversation, usually (but not always) information, and you're trying to get it in a casual way. For example, you might say, "I wonder if Marie is still dating that guy. I'll try to chat up her friends and find out."

    'Chat with' seems a lot more happenstance and non-purposeful. You might be in line and just start chatting with the person next to you. Or if you're chatting with Marie's friends, it's because they're nice people, not because you're trying to find out if she's still dating someone. You're just talking, not seeking to get anything out of it.

  30. I agree with Gail--we Americans don't use "chat up" and "chat with" interchangeably. "Chatting up" can include hitting on someone, but we use it more broadly for the same kind of activity in non-sexual/non-romantic situations. The person doing the chatting up is trying to win favor or solicit a favor, via friendly conversation.

    For example, we would say, "The salesperson came by my office to chat me up." But we would almost never say, "My boss came by my office to chat me up." If your boss is chatting you up, there needs to be more context: "My boss came by to chat me up because she's trying to get me to volunteer for the CEO's big timewasting project."

    Do the British say "talk up"? It occurs to me that often the person chatting me up is talking up himself or herself.

  31. I just observed chat up used to mean to start a conversation with in a mid-90's BBC mystery series. So Americans definitely haven't been the only ones using it in a non-romantic sense!

  32. Can you be more specific? Which series, which episode? Thanks.

  33. Re verb + 'up': as well as Howard's 'listen up', 'head up' and 'change up' have made great inroads into BrE (spoken, at least). 'Headed-up notepaper' remains probably the most cringeworthy expression I've ever heard. I sometimes facetiously ask people who change up money before going abroad whether they will change any excess down when they return. I also meet 'fill up' (eg a form) occasionally.

    I suspect those four are from AmE (but then as a Brit I would, as Lynne would say). Not sure about 'close up' as used by a barmaid who says 'We're closing up at 11:30'. Divide up (also slang divvy up)? Add up? Cut up? Polish up? Stand up when it means no more than stand:'No seats. I had to stand up all the way.' Train up, as in instruct.

  34. BrE. There was a BBC3 sitcom called pulling, which according to Wikipedia first aired in November 2006. Doesn’t the King James Bible say somewhere “Train up a child in the way he should go”? Wikipedia dives Proverbs 22, 6.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)