up is down, in is out
There are many hundreds of oddities and exceptions that frustrate earnest attempts to conquer English. There are crazy spellings, for example, as in beau and beautiful, where the same letters (-e-a-u-) are pronounced in two entirely different ways. Or the “silent -e” that makes the preceding vowel “long” (as in gave), except of course, when it doesn’t, as in give or have.
Spelling exceptions operate more or less on the surface, but other English oddities go deeper, and challenge our theories of how words mean what they do. Whether you drink something up or drink something down, the end result is the same: an empty glass. The same is true for burn something up and burn something down. Likewise, if you fill in a questionnaire, it’s the same as if you fill it out.
Does that mean that up and down mean the same thing? Or that there’s no difference between in and out? Of course not. But wouldn’t it be helpful to be able to explain this phenomenon instead of handing it off to ‘idiom’ or ‘that’s just an expression we have’?
Calling something an idiom is the easy way out. From the earliest days of school, children learn about opposites, synonyms and antonyms, parts of speech. We teach them rules--which is a good thing--but we tend to gloss over the exceptions. When problems crop up in spite of our best efforts, in a child’s question, say, or in a student’s error, we consign them to idiom. It saves time. But often, the exceptions are more interesting than the rules. Let’s take a closer look at the idea of opposites or antonyms.
The adjective hot is the opposite of the adjective cold. That’s easy. But what’s the opposite of the adjective green? Well, in traffic, waiting for the light to change, it’s red. In the woodpile, green wood won’t burn, but dry wood or seasoned wood will. At the produce store, the opposite of green is ripe. In the corporate world, you’re only green if you don’t pollute the atmosphere. On the golf course? Might be the rough, might be the fairway to a player. But to the greenskeeper, the opposite of green is more likely brown. And at spring training, if you’re green, you’re not red, dry, or ripe--you’re the opposite of experienced.
It’s the context that provides the meaning for a particular use of a word. Words don’t get their meanings from hierarchies or categories. That is, up doesn’t get its meaning in burn up or drink up from its status as a preposition. Indeed, it isn’t really a preposition at all in either case. Where’s the object of the preposition? How can it come at the end of a sentence? If it’s not a preposition, then what is it? Is it an idiom?
Those are the wrong questions to ask.
Instead, we need to ask how up and down both manage to convey the sense of ‘completely.’ If you look to the context instead of the category, and think about how real things burn in the physical world, it’s not so hard to do.
Picture a New Year’s Eve bonfire. The flames dance and flash, but they always point upward. Bits of ash and sparks fly up. If you look high above the flames, the plume of smoke is also going up. As the wood is consumed by the burning process, the products of combustion all go up. You light the fireplace logs at the bottom and hold a match below the flame because fire goes up.
So the up in burn up means ‘completely’ based on the natural upward direction of all flaming things.
The day after a house fire, on the other hand, all the flame is gone. There may be spotty wisps of smoke drifting upward, but the dominant impression is of what remains of someone’s home. The naked brick chimney that still reaches up only emphasizes everything else that is now down, in a blackened pile on the ground.
The up and down in drink up/drink down are the same: you pick your glass up, the orange juice goes down into your happy belly. In both cases, at the end of the process, the liquid is ‘completely’ gone, at least in terms of what we can see.
Maybe we should spend less time teaching about the easy opposites--hot/cold, big/little, happy/sad--which are, after all, obvious even to children. That would give us more time to spend on what are actually very complicated words like up, down, in, out, over, on, and the rest of the prepositions.
The easy dismissal of ‘idiom’ (That’s just how we say it--get used to it!) will always work, as it has for centuries. But that kind of thinking has consequences, and not just for non-native speakers of English. If you haven’t had enough already, check out the follow-up discussion on phrasal verbs here.