Ask An Editor: Why do so many American words get 'up' added to them, like 'mess up?'
In which a professional editor tries to explain to English as a Second Language students why Americans add “up” to common words to “extremify” their definitions
I was blessed to receive my COVID vaccination earlier in 2021 than many others, thanks to a selfless act by a friend; so to pay them back karmically, I'm doing volunteer work in English editing in various places all over the internet this year. One place is the subreddit English Learning, in which befuddled ESL students around the world post questions that no one else can seem to answer for them, many involving odd phrases, idioms, and other bizarre corners of English grammar and usage. I find many of them so interesting, I decided to start reposting them here to my blog. Note, however, that many other people usually reply to these questions as well, and that I'm only sharing my own answer since I have no one else's permission to do so. See my main index page for the full list.
On April 13th, 2021, redditor vdhhud asked:
In the sentence “would a person cut someone UP like that because the devil made them do it?” why use “up” in this case? what is the mean of it?
“Up” in this context is a strange American colloquialism which emphasizes that the thing being done is being done to an extreme degree.
If you “mess” something, you get it out of order or dirty it. If you “mess up” something, you've rearranged it so much that people can't tell what it originally was.
If you “chat” to an attractive person at a bar, you have a conversation with them. If you “chat up” someone at a bar, you have an intense and focused conversation designed specifically to convince them to have sex with you.
If you “cut” something, you make a single incision. If you “cut up” something, you cut it so many times that it's unrecognizable.
In this case, the speaker is likely talking about a serial killer, who kills his victims so viciously that you can barely recognize who it is afterwards. He's asking what would motivate a normal person to be this vicious and violent. Was he possessed by a demon, maybe?
“Up” is also sometimes seen before the word to indicate it's an extreme version of that word, not after.
If you “sell” something, you convince someone to buy it. If you “upsell” something, you convince them to buy something they had no intention of buying at the beginning of the conversation.
If you “chuck” something, you throw it. If you “upchuck,” you explosively vomit.
[Got a question for Ask An Editor? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.]