to up sticks / to pull up stakes

Marking (=AmE grading) season is upon us--meaning that I have about 145,000 words to read before the next batch of 122,000 words shows up on Monday. How much I blog in the next few weeks will tell you just how much I'm avoiding those essays. But in trying to be a good faculty member (if not a good blogger), I'll limit myself to a short entry now. That's what I say to myself at the beginning of each blog entry. Then two hours later...

Today's topic comes to us courtesy of Nancy Friedman, who asked (11 days ago) about upping sticks:
I encountered this idiom for the first time recently in a blog by this fellow.
I did a Google search and discovered 1,300 references, including a book title (subtitle also veddy British: "How to Move House and Stay Sane," where AmE would simply say "Move").
Can you shed light on the origin of the expression? Does it mean "permanently relocating" or simply "taking off for a while"?
It almost sounds like the name of a quaint township. Nether Upping Sticks, perhaps.
I quote the post in part because I was very satisfied to discover that the 'this fellow' has a link to SbaCL on his blog. What a sterling person he is! (And it's so much better to be sterling nowadays!)

In his post, he used up sticks to mean 'temporarily relocate', as he was going on holiday/vacation. It also can be used for a more permanent move, as in: We're going to up sticks and move to the country. (Something that happens a lot in England. It's surprising there's any country left.)

While it is sometimes believed that the phrase refers to picking up one's (sticks of) furniture, the OED traces it to its nautical meaning, i.e. to set up a boat's masts, in preparation for departure. There are some other (folk) theories about its etymology here.

Until I read Nancy's e-mail, I hadn't reali{s/z}ed that up sticks was a Briticism--probably because the AmE equivalent is so close: to pull up stakes. The the phrase originated in the practice of putting stakes down to mark the boundaries of one's property. So, when you moved, you pulled up your stakes and took them to the next place.

In AmE, I'd never use pull up stakes for anything but a permanent move, though, so I find up sticks strange for temporary moves. However, locals don't. Norman Schur's British English from A to Zed (1991; cited at the above link) says of up sticks:
This can describe moving one's entire ménage or simply clearing up after a picnic.
I think one runs into up sticks in BrE more often than up stakes in AmE. There are about 1000 more cases of up stakes when one googles up sticks and move and up stakes and move, but considering that there are a lot more Americans on the web than Brits, that may be taken as supporting my intuition. At the etymology link above (the one with the variant etymologies), someone claims that he only knows up stakes in AusE.

The OED has up sticks as originating in the early 1800s, but cases of pull up stakes have been traced to as early as 1640 (see origin link above) or 1703 (OED). The two phrases are so close that I was tempted to think that one might have its origin as an eggcorn of the other. Alas, there's no evidence for such fancy.

How was that for a short post? Not.


  1. As a field engineer I have learned the phrase, "drag up" from my trade union employees. The first time I heard this my response was, "Drag up what, stakes?" The immediate answer I received was, "Of course!" In union vernacular, "drag up" implies that the worker is leaving the job, usually voluntarily for greener pastures.

  2. Over at google books there is a book asserting that "pull up stakes" in America can be dated back to 1640.

    I don't know how to link here. I found it with a simple Google search. Apparently I am now seeing with a simple search as per Google's recent announcement.

  3. Could the Pulling Up Stakes as a permanent move be related to Staking a Claim? If you've staked claim to a parcel of land, marked it with stakes, then when you pull up stakes, it would be big deal.

    You just put me in mind of homesteaders and the Oklaholma land runs.

  4. JK, the source for your 1640 date is probably relying on the same info as the link that I provide for that date.

    Z, probably related, but not in the direction you're implying. Stake a claim is originally North American, but is first attested in the mid-1800s, so well after pull up stakes started to be used. Stake land goes back further, and the meaning 'lay claim to land' is originally North American as well. But it's probably the case that the verb followed the noun stake rather than the other way around.

  5. "To up sticks" sounds so ungrammatical. Where's the verb?

  6. I up
    You up
    He ups
    We up
    They up

  7. Soldiers re-up.

    Yeah, I was just suggesting conflation, not causation.

  8. Verbalisation of prepositions and directionals; I love it.

  9. I always thought to "up sticks" was a cricket expression. At the end of the game, the stumps are pulled up and everyone leaves the field. Evidently I was wrong.

  10. I (AmE) always thought that "pull up stakes" referred to quitting a campsite. This would align with the idea of temporary movement from one place to another: shifting your tent to another location, possibly far away.


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