on the up and up

Thomas West recently asked:

I hadn't really noticed this before, but it looks like it's probably a case of an American phrase coming
to Britain and being re-interpreted (which happens now and again—I talk about a few other cases in The Prodigal Tongue and elsewhere on this blog).

The expression originated in AmE in or before the 1860s. It is often hyphenated: on the up-and-up. The OED entry for it starts:
a. Honest(ly), straightforward(ly), ‘on the level’. Originally and chiefly U.S.

1863   Humboldt Reg. (Unionville, Nevada) 4 July 2/1
   Now that would be business, on the dead up-and-up.
But then it continues with a second definition that it does not mark as U.S.:
 b. Steadily rising, improving, or increasing; prospering, successful.
1930   Sun (Baltimore) 18 Aug. 6/1   From now on, we are led to believe, law and order will be on the up and up, as the current phrase is.
1937   G. Heyer They found him Dead xiii. 265   He certainly wasn't on the up-and-up when I knew him. He was picking up a living doing odd jobs for any firm that would use him.
1959   Encounter Oct. 25/2   Private travel is on the up and up.
Just the first example in sense b is from an American source—but I really can't tell why they think that either of the first two examples has sense b and not sense a. I would have thought that the first one is saying that the police are going to be less corrupt or disorgani{s/z}ed, and, in the second, I would think that they were saying that he was taking money under the table. But you can see how the two senses can overlap and therefore sense a could morph into sense b, which it definitely has done by the 1959 example.

Sense b comes 50 or 60 years after the first sense, during a time when the UK is getting a lot more exposure to AmE, so it does seem reasonable to think that the phrase came from the US and changed in the UK. The data from Google Books also seem to support this hypothesis:


The b sense is definitely the primary sense in BrE. The (UK-based) Collins COBUILD Idiom Dictionary marks sense a as American but not sense b, and the BBC World Service's Learning English pages give only the 'successful' meaning in their list of up idioms:
To be on the up and up: to be getting increasingly successful.
Example:
His life has been on the up and up since he published his first book. Now, he's making a film in Hollywood.

One of the sources on freedictionary.com explicitly marks the b sense as British:

But all that said, a few commenters on Thomas's original post seem to be Americans saying that they use the 'successful' sense. (I suspect they are younger Americans.) As we've seen above, it's not always clear which one people mean. Looking at a sample in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, though, the sense a meaning predominates:

Click picture to enlarge

Some of the BrE speakers responding to Thomas said that they assumed that on the up and up is an extension of a phrase on the up, meaning 'rising, being successful'. The OED doesn't record that, but there are plenty of examples in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English. (I searched for them followed by a (BrE) full stop/(AmE) period, so that I could be sure there wasn't another and up after the first up.)


The examples in this data are often along the lines of "the numbers of X are on the up", so they are clearly about rising numbers and (by extension, often) success.

Now, there is no expression on the down to mean 'decreasing' and the OED hadn't yet noticed the on the up expression, so I have to wonder whether the phrase on the up and up came from the US, got reinterpred in BrE, and then got shortened to on the up (rather than the latter being expanded from the former).  It's harder to get information for on the up in a place like Google Books, because one can't do the punctuation trick and rule out all the examples like on the up grade or on the up line. I had a quick look at the Hansard corpus, the record of UK Parliamentary speech, as that gives a more reasonable amount of data to comb through. None of the examples of on the up before the first appearance of on the up and up (1946) are on the up to mean 'improving'—they are all on the up [noun], using up as a modifier for the noun. The 1946 Hansard example of up and up is used to mean 'growing, successful' (the b sense), as are the subsequent examples (33 of them). The first example of on the up in that meaning is in 1978. So, that is making it look like the phrase was cut rather than expanded in BrE.

Thanks to Thomas for pointing this one out!

And thanks to Jan Freeman and Ben Yagoda for noticing it earlier. I'd forgotten about Ben's post here.


24 comments

  1. Presumably the compilers of the OED could tell from the context of those sentences which sense was meant! I was certainly quite unaware of the American sense.

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  2. BrE equivalent for 'above board' might be 'on the level'.

    We might note the number of times the Prime Minister and cabinet members have promised to 'level with us' recently.

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    Replies
    1. Alleged exchange in court.

      Policeman: I was able move the car by pushing it.
      Judge: What, on the level?
      Policeman: Yes, m'lud, honestly.

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  3. I was also completely unaware of the American meaning, and I find it rather puzzling. 'Up-and-up' = honest? Can anybody explain the metaphor?

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    Replies
    1. I was wondering the same thing.

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    2. I was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1958 and I have never used the expression to mean successful. It has always meant "honest" to me.

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    3. I have no idea about the actual origin, but I always assumed it was to contrast with expressions like "on the down-low" = secret/secretly. If things are on the up and up, it sounds like they are showing everything on the surface, not hiding anything, and thus honest.

      Although I know both senses of the phrase (I am 21 and American).

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    4. "On the down-low"?
      That's another expression that somehow passed me by!
      I've heard "the low-down", meaning an informed briefing (an equally puzzling expression, come to think of it!), but not, so far as I can recall, "the down-low".
      But the contrast would certainly make some sense as the origin of "on the up-and-up".
      ("On the up-high" would have made more sense of course, but we can't expect rigorous logic in such things!)

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    5. In the US, a specific sexual meaning of "on the down-low" has become increasingly widespread to the point of crowding out any other uses: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down-low_(sexual_slang).

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    6. Blimey Charlie !
      The things you learn on this blog !

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  4. @Kate Bunting: Yeah, no. The full context of the 1930 Baltimore Sun citation is:

    BUSINESS MEN IN CHARGE
    Under the caption "Business Fights Crime in Chicago," Robert I. Randolph, president of the Chicago Chamber of Commerce, explains in the Saturday Evening Post that "business leaders, not politicians, not preachers, not reformers, have taken on the Augean job of giving Chicago a thorough housecleaning." From now on, we are led to believe, law and order will be on the up and up, as the current phrase is.
    "The job," Mr. Randolph writes, "is to put the criminals behind bars and remove them from active participation in crime. The count on which a conviction is secured is relatively unimportant; the conviction is the big thing. Therefore, the charge on which it is easiest to get a conviction and sentence is the best. Apparently it is far easier to convict a powerful gangster for his income from his criminal activities than to convict him of violating the Volstead act. Anything which will put a gangster behind bars looks good to us."
    ....

    Read on its own, this might be misunderstood as indicating the "Steadily rising, improving, or increasing; prospering, successful" meaning; however, it is in now way definitively indicative of that. Moreover, knowing the context of the extreme police corruption in the 1920s Chicago, the "Honest(ly), straightforward(ly), 'on the level'" meaning actually seems much more salient.

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  5. I'm so glad I included this link in a comment on Ben Y.'s post, because I never would have remembered it now.

    Geoff Nunberg discussing the divergent meanings of "on the up and up" in 2003:
    http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~nunberg/upandup.html

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  6. As a British English speaker, I can only offer my own usage in evidence. I would instinctively assume the "honest" meaning, and it was only in thinking quite hard about it that I realised I have also heard (but I don't think ever used) it in the "improving" sense. I have, however, used the derivative "on the up" phrase with that meaning. Just one further example.

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  7. Echoing Doug. Also a British English speaker, I too have only ever used it to mean 'honest'. I might say 'on the up' for improving, but can't remember actually ever using it.

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  8. This isn't a phrase I've ever used myself, but I could swear whenever I've heard it, even from Americans, it's been in the sense 'increasingly successful'.

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  9. I'm a 69-year-old Englishwoman who has lived in the US for 25 years. "On-the-up-and-up" has only ever mean "legitimate" to me.

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  10. American English speaker here and the above board meaning was the only one I was familiar with until reading this posting.

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  11. 60-yo American male here. I'm hunkering down here in my house with my wife and three kids. Wife and I only were only aware of the "honest" meaning. My 22- and 20-yo children always understood it to have the "improving" meaning. The 22-yo says the only time she remembers hearing it was in a song from Hamilton, and gleaned the meaning from context,
    "Since when are you a Democratic Republican
    Since being one put me on the up and up again"
    (I think she gleaned badly)

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  12. I was born in the UK (in the 1970s) and moved to the US in my twenties, and I swear I've only ever heard of the "honest" meaning in either country. But I don't trust my memory these days :)

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  13. I've just looked in Chambers to see what that says. It gives both meanings of "on the up and up". It doesn't mark either as American. Curiously, it gives only one definition for "on the up" - a cricketing term meaning of a stroke played as the ball rises from its bounce.

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  14. We can antedate the "successful" meaning to 1906:

    A. T. Stevens, assistant manager of the John Deere Plow Company at St. Louis, states that business is "on the up and up." Last Saturday the house shipped 112 jobs. The carriage factory, he states, is running full capacity and the prospects for the future are very good.

    Farm Implement News (Chicago), 1906-05-31, p. 20

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  15. BrEnglish speaker, male, elderly, I've never heard 'on the up and up' used to mean 'honest'. When I've heard it used at all, rarely, it would be a more emphatic way of saying 'on the up' i.e. getting better, improving.

    We do use 'on the level' to mean honest, and 'level with' as a phrasal verb. We also use 'straight' to mean honest. One occasionally hears 'on the square' used in stead, which I believe is a metaphor from freemasonry.

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  16. http://freemasonry.bcy.ca/fiction/vernacular.html

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  17. Rather to my surprise, it appears that the 'honest' meaning was current in East Cheam in 1960:

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=B7-bZSx-03M

    The Emigrant (1960)

    The following exchange takes place at 14'40:

    Tony Hancock: So there it is, Sid, I can't emigrate. Eighty-three countries I've tried, and none of them want me.

    Sid James: Leave it to me, Tony boy. I'll get you out of the country. I'm a specialist at getting people out of the country.

    Tony Hancock: That's what I heard, and, well, that's why I've come to you. Mind you, Sid, I want this on the up-and-up. I want to emigrate all legal and above board.

    Sid James: Of course you do! That's the only way I do business. Now, you give me fifty nicker for a passport...

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Abbr.

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