Friday, July 18, 2014

Up and Down


I’m an English teacher and an author, and I sometimes wonder how anyone can learn English as a second language. Throwing out the languages that require us to learn a different alphabet, is there a more difficult language than English? Take our idioms, for instance—of which there are too many to count. At the drop of a hat? Beat around the bush? Barking up the wrong tree? A chip on your shoulder? Costs an arm and a leg? Can’t cut the mustard? Hit the hay? Jump on the bandwagon? Let the cat out of the bag? Off your rocker? On the ball? Piece of cake? Put all your eggs in one basket? Steal your thunder? Straight from the horse’s mouth? Take it with a grain of salt? The whole nine yards?

But those are idioms, which are figures of speech. We know they mean something figurative, so inherently we understand there is more to the phrase than the literal meanings to the words. But how does a new English speaker discern what the words up and down could possibly mean? I looked up the words (though I didn’t bother to write down the definitions). Down had seven adverb definitions while up had ten. I don’t think it’s enough, personally.

In class, sometimes I hear myself say, “Quiet down and listen up.” I give directions and the kids are mixed up. On multiple choice questions, sometimes the answer is a toss up. I have to crack down on discipline, call down to the office, speak up to be heard, dress up for work, calm down the rowdy kids who are acting up, follow up with a phone call to parents of kids who won't shut up, jazz up the lesson, wait for kids to settle down, turn down requests, lock up the room, sweep up the floor, and build up students' confidence. I have to round up missing work, shut down my computer, scale down a lesson, simmer down when I might be getting worked up, ease up when I’m getting fed up, mix up the activities before time’s up, and avoid getting tied up in politics.

What if I had a beat-up car that was a lemon (idiom)? I mean my car could break down and need a tune up. In order to get it fixed up, a grown-up service man would have to take a close-up look and size up and pin down the problems. He would hook up his computer before he writes up an invoice that breaks down the problems with my messed-up car. He might round up some guys, jack up the car, strip down the engine, break down the carburetor, clamp down some hoses, and make up some problems that don’t exist. Since all I can do is stare down a broken engine, gas up my tank, pump up my tires, and pay up my bills, I can just hope he doesn’t cook up some unnecessary costs and shake me down to cough up some money I shouldn’t have to spend.

What if I was trying to shape up at the gym with a personal trainer? He might tell me to man up and pick up the pace. He might try to wear me down to break down muscles. For me, he might have to scale down a workout he worked up or maybe he’ll ease up on me and back down when I feel like throwing up. Maybe he’ll crack down on me for eating up all the household chocolate. Maybe two trainers could gang up on me and stare me down until I can measure up. Maybe they’ll follow up by telling me to suck it up until I cramp up and need a rub down. When it’s all over, I can settle down, cheer up, strip down, shower up, mop up the floor after I’ve washed up, dress up in my pajamas, turn down the sheets, and wind down by opening up a book to catch up on my favorite characters. I can settle down until it’s time to shut down the lights, which is hands down the best part of the day.

Okay, so we use the words for uncountable reasons, which is difficult enough to understand, but we use up and down with the SAME words. How confusing is that? We touch down an airplane and touch up paint. We settle down emotionally and settle up a bet. We turn down an offer and turn up the pressure. We pay down the loan and pay up on a bill. We write down a blog post, and when we’re done, we have a write up. We crack down on criminals and crack up laughing. We bring down the mafia and bring up a problem. We wash down the dog, and when we’re done, he’s been washed up. We talk down a jumper and talk up our foolish ideas. We screw down a screw and screw up the project. We can drive down or drive up a road, mop down a floor or mop it up, be told to slow down or slow up, be tied down or tied up, soap down and soap up, lock down and lock up, pin down or pin up, and back down or back up. After a beat down, we’re beat up; or after a throw down, we can throw up. We can shoot down an idea and shoot up drugs. We can knock down a wall and knock up our wives. We can take down an empire and take up knitting. We brush down a horse, and when we’re done, it’s brushed up. We can break down an idea and break up with our girlfriend. Is it time to close down or close up?

It all seems so confusing to me with so many meanings for two such simple words. I was thinking, if you enjoyed my mental melt down, maybe you could print up my blog, pick it up from the printer, hold it up or hang it up or stick it up on the refrigerator or pin it up on the wall. Or turn down my suggestion and wad it up or tear it up. By now, you probably don’t know if you’re coming down or going up, yet more than 15% of the words used in this mixed-up article are up and down. Do we as English speakers really know what those two little words mean?