What’s Up?

Shabbos was ending, and my grandson Avraham Yitzchak wasn’t happy.

I wish I could say that when Shabbos ends I feel a sense of loss. I’d also like to think that Avraham Yitzchak was feeling the holiness of Shabbos ebbing away. But, as Dylan Thomas said, “‘I’m only human,’ says the man who, deep within himself, refuses to believe it.” A more likely explanation was that his mother and older sister were tending to the young’uns. His father — aka, my son Meilech — was not home from shul yet. So Avraham Yitzchak was glumly cleaning up all by himself.

He was not a happy camper.

OK, he wasn’t camping. Oxford English Dictionary defines happy camper as “a content or satisfied person.” William Safire wrote that happy camper must have “had currency among counselors at summer camps … the homesick city kid who mopes about the countryside, hating cows, cursing mosquitoes …”

OED categorized it as “colloquial and slang.” To play it safe, I checked … and it wasn’t listed in Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Clichés.

I asked Bryan Garner, editor-in-chief, Black’s Law Dictionary; and author, Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU), if it’s ever OK to use a cliché. He answered, “Once in a blue moon.” Did that mean rarely; or only if I’m overdrawn at the word bank? Sky watchers will tell you a blue moon is when there are two full moons in one calendar month — seven times every 19 years. The last was October 31, 2020. The next won’t be until August 22, 2021.

(Whoa! I just interrupted my digression. It’s getting so I need a train schedule to keep track of my thoughts. Now where was I? Oh yeah. Avraham Yitzchak was down in the kitchen duty dumps. … Cut to the door.)

Enter Meilech: “Gut voch.”

Avraham Yitzchak: “Maybe someone can help me clean up?”

Meilech: (deflecting the kvetch) “Did you ever wonder why it’s clean up, not clean down?”

AY: (distracted) “Simple, that’s because you’re trying to finish up!”

Meilech: “Did you ever wonder why it’s finish up, and not finish down?”

AY: “That … (pausing, then continuing with added emphasis) is an entirely different question!”

Meilech: “That was a gooood line! I have to tell that one to Zeidy” (Yiddish for Grandpa — that’s me).

AY: (laughing) “I was just thinking the same thing. You have to tell Zeidy that one. He’s going to love it!”

I do.

But the question is not so simple. Pull up a chair and listen to what the OED has to say about the figurative use of up:

“Some uncertainty attaches to the origin and development of many of these uses, the variety of which is so great that the adverb comes to present a number of highly divergent and even directly opposite senses, e.g. to bind up in contrast with to break up.”

When you see OED scratching its head, you know you’re in for trouble. So buckle your seatbelt. We’ll be going over some rough terrain. It’s all about something called phrasal verbs. That’s where a verb combines with a directional adverb. And where it stops, nobody knows.

To start off, Robert Burchfield (ed., Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd edition) wrote that the “earliest example known to me is to give up, ‘to surrender,’ recorded in 1154.”

OK, you caught me. I purposely wrote “start off,” just to see if you’d catch it. Start would have worked just fine on its own. As H.W. Fowler observed, (Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd edition) phrasal verbs are a useful resource that can be abused when the simple verb will do the job.

Dr. Samuel Johnson (“Preface to the Dictionary,” 1755; Lynch edition) wrote: “There is another kind of composition more frequent in our language than perhaps in any other, from which arises to foreigners the greatest difficulty. We modify the signification of many verbs by a particle subjoined; as to break off, to stop abruptly; to bear out, to justify … to set out, to begin a course or journey … with innumerable expressions of the same kind, of which some appear wildly irregular, being so far distant from the sense of the simple words, that no sagacity will be able to trace the steps by which they arrived at the present use.”

Garner (in GMEU) advised a middle ground: “Rhetoricians have taken two positions on these verbs. On the one hand, some recommend using them whenever they’re natural-sounding because they lend a relaxed, confident tone — hence get rid of instead of the Latin-derived eliminate, phase out instead of gradually discontinue.” However, “phrasal verbs can add extra words.” As befitting a legal expert, Garner said to use “judgment” depending on the context.

The 4th edition (do I hear 5?) of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (edited by Jeremy Butterfield) gave similar advice: “Be cautious in formal prose. In particular … guard against the use of phrasal verbs that … seem too clever by half.”

(“Too clever by half” is a Briticism that means “too smart for one’s own good.” William Safire called it a “fractional excess of adroitness.”)

It seems to me that phrasal verbs are a lot like life. It’s all in the attitude you take. When you’re feeling down and out, just think positive.

Then it’s up to you.


Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com.