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Up and at ‘em

I’ll be Bach.

Dear Word Detective: So, I have long heard the phrase “Up and Adam” which never made sense to me. I was looking into it recently because I was re-watching a Simpsons episode where a Schwarzenegger-like actor kept saying “Up and at them” because he couldn’t get the line right. However, this phrase makes a great deal more sense to me then the former. Googling it reveals it is likely “Up and at ‘em.” I was curious if this is the correct phrase and would like to hear about how it came about and how often and how it is incorrectly stated. — Devin.

Good question, and thanks for the term “Schwarzenegger-like.” It has a mordant chuckle baked into it. Speaking of baking, I happened to be sitting in a restaurant in the German Village area of Columbus, Ohio last summer devouring an enormous chocolate cream-puff, when who should amble past our table but Ahnold himself, complete with his retinue of bodyguards. In that one ten-second close-up I learned two new things: (a) he’s much shorter than I had thought, and (b) he’s bright orange. Like a little Teutonic traffic cone.

Thanks to all the people on the internet with nothing better to do, I can now report that the episode of the Simpsons you were watching was from 1995, called “Radioactive Man,” and centers on the making of a film of the (fictional) popular comic book of that title in Springfield. The eponymous superhero in the film is played by Ranier Wolfcastle, a parody of Schwarzenegger who appears in several Simpsons episodes. Apparently, Radioactive Man’s catchphrase is “Up and Atom!”, which makes Simpsonesque sense, but Ranier Wolfcastle, with his obsessive enunciation, insists on saying “Up and at them!” The joke seems to be aimed at people who insist that “up and at ‘em” is sub-standard English.

To begin at the beginning, the original phrase is definitely “Up and at ‘em.” (“‘Em” is a shortening of “them” dating back to the 14th century). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers two citations for “up and at ‘em,” the earlier being from 1909 (“It was always the up-and-at-‘em aspect of things that appealed to him.”). There is some debate (see linguist Arnold Zwicky’s blog at over whether “Up and Adam” is a conscious joke by people familiar with the phrase or a genuine “eggcorn,” a substitution of a word or phrase based on a misunderstanding (see The Eggcorns Database at for an explanation and examples). The verdict seems to be that most people who write or say “Up and Adam” are joking and know it, but some people have made apparently sincere attempts to connect the phrase to Adam (Garden of Eden, snake, etc.) being told to get busy by God.

Two posters in the forum at the Eggcorn Database mentioned above remember being awakened by their mothers in the morning with the exhortation “Up and Adam!”, and I think I do too. I definitely remember another mock-Biblical reference from my childhood, this one at the close of day. Much of what I supposedly learned in Sunday School is a dim memory, to put it mildly. But the story in the Book of Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the young men consigned to die in a fiery furnace by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (and rescued by an angel) has stuck with me. And it has stuck with me entirely because at bedtime my mother transformed their names into “Shadrach, Meshach, and To Bed We Go!”

Corking good

Case closed.

Dear Word Detective:  My mother often referred to a newly read book as “a corking good read.” Any comments on the term and its origin? — R.J.

Well, it depends. It’s difficult to know, when folks send their questions in by email, where they’re writing from, and while geographic location may seem (and usually is) largely irrelevant, it does figure in this case. If your mother is an inhabitant of, or has some close family connection to, Great Britain, no problemo. I’d say she was simply employing a mainstream colloquialism of that fair land. If, however, your family hails from the US, I suggest that you hightail it over to your mother’s house and unplug her TV. She has clearly been watching too much PBS programming, probably the powerfully hallucinogenic Downton Abbey, and is on the verge of ordering Marmite by mail. She must be stopped for her own good.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the adjective “corking” as “unusually fine, large, or excellent; stunning.” The OED also notes that the term first appeared in print in 1895 and is “chiefly US” in usage, which strikes me as odd, since I’ve never heard anyone but a hopeless Anglophile here use the term in a non-ironic sense. They even cite a use by P.G. Wodehouse (“There’s nobody I think a more corking sportsman than Maud.” 1919) who was about as non-US as you can get. Incidentally, the citation preceding that one for “corking” in the OED does not actually contain the word “corking” (“Arthur’s approval was fortified and grew with contemplation.”1918), which is very strange. Perhaps there’s an anagram I’m missing there.

In any case, “corking” as an adjective is an outgrowth of the noun “corker,” a slang term from the early 19th century with two related, but distinct, senses. The original sense was “something that settles and puts a definite end to a discussion or argument; an irrefutable argument or fact,” much as a cork tightly seals a wine bottle (“It’s a corker. If it [a proposed law] passes we’ll have to quit.” 1889). From this usage came an extended sense of “something shocking or astonishing.” A “corker” in this sense can be either something good or something bad.

The second sense of “corker,” which arose in the late 19th century, is unambiguously positive. Meaning “a person or thing of surpassing size or excellence; a stunner” (OED), this “corker” led directly to the “corking” your mother uses to praise a book.

Incidentally, occasionally you’ll hear someone complaining about the use of “read” as a noun, usually coupled with a modifier such as “good,” “riveting,” etc., in the sense of “material to read” (“My Friend Sandy can be hugely recommended … as a pleasantly light, bright sophisticated read.” 1961). I’ve never understood exactly what the problem with this usage is supposed to be, but it  dates back to at least the mid-20th century and it has lasted because it’s useful, which is, after all, the whole point of language.

In light of

 Lighter than ere.

Dear Word Detective:  For many years I have heard people say “In light of…” meaning “considering the circumstances.” How does the word “light” come into play? “Light” can be weight, e.g., “light” as opposed to heavy, or it can be “light” as a “piercing light.” I’m puzzled how it came to be used in this situation. — John Wilson.

That’s an interesting question. There are two kinds of “light” in English, completely unrelated words, both very old. The older of the two is the adjective meaning “not heavy” or “of little weight.” This comes from the prehistoric Germanic root word “lingkhtaz,” which also produced words meaning “light” in several other languages. This “light” first appeared in Old English meaning simply “not heavy,” but by the 16th century was also being used to mean “light in relation to its size” or, in the case of boats, carriages, etc., “capable of bearing only a small load” (e.g., a “light railway,” one not designed to carry heavy traffic). Similarly, “light industry” produces goods from “light” materials and “lightly-armed” troops are not driving tanks. A “light” meal doesn’t make one sleepy, and “light” dinner conversation is cheerful (even “lighthearted”) and avoids stressful topics. Just about anything easy, cheerful, graceful or simple can be described with the adjective “light.”

This “light” is also a verb meaning “make lighter” (i.e., “lighten”), “to dismount, descend  or settle” (as a bird “lights” on a branch), or “to leave, especially casually or abruptly” (as one might “light out” for Las Vegas). Interestingly, this “light” doesn’t really exist as a noun, except in the form “lights,” an antiquated word for “lungs” now used only for those of animals. The lungs of an animal (or human) are the lightest in weight of any major organ, and the word “lung” itself comes from the same root as “light.” The use of “lights” in reference to humans lives on in the colloquial phrase “to scare the livers and lights” out of a person, meaning “to terrify” (“It most scared the livers and lights out of me.” Mark Twain, 1884).

The other kind of “light,” meaning “luminance,” is a noun and verb drawn from the Indo-European root “leuk,” meaning “light,” which also produced the Latin “lux” (light) as well as “lumen” (as in “luminous”), “luna” (moon) and “lustrare” (to shine, source of “luster” and “illustrate”). The same “leuk” root produced the Greek “leukos” (white), which is found in “leukemia,” a disease which causes over-production of white blood cells.

The basic senses of this “light” employ the noun in its literal meaning of “luminance,” but the figurative senses are where the fun is. We speak of a lively person having “light” in his or her eyes, and “the light of one’s eye” being a dear friend, child or lover. To reach an understanding of a difficult question (or to receive a religious or political conversion) is “to see the light.” Matters not previously known, when revealed, are said to “come to light” with added details “shedding light.” A person who falls asleep quickly is said to be “out like a light,” and “lights out” can mean either bedtime or a boxer knocked down for the count.

The “light” in “in light of,” which dates back to the late 17th century, is the metaphorical illumination cast on a question by the particular facts or circumstances of a situation, especially if they exert an influence on the outcome of a decision. “In light of” an offender’s youth and lack of a criminal record, for instance, the usual sentence may be suspended, or “in light of” a recent job loss the purchase of a new car might be delayed.