The Down and Down on the Up and Up

Up and UpMany years ago, This American Life did an episode about things we know that we don’t. In particular, there was a guy (show producer Alex Blumberg) who, when he was a kid, got the idea that Nielsen Families were people named Nielsen. The TV industry used them to gauge the popularity of shows because Nielsen was such a generic name and the people must be middle of the road or something. This, of course, is not the case. Nielsen Families are families with all kinds of last names who take part in audience measurements for the Nielsen Company. But you can empathize with the guy’s misunderstanding. I think we’ve all had some strange notions as children. Most of the time, these get cleared up while we are still children.

Not so for this unfortunate man. While in his twenties, he was having a conversation with a girlfriend and the subject of Nielsen Families came up. He blurted out, “Isn’t it weird that they all have the same last name?” Immediately upon saying it, he realized what his child’s mind could not: they don’t all have the same last names.

This morning, I came upon an article by Geoffrey Nunberg from about a decade ago. It is about the phrase “on the up and up.” I always thought this phrase meant one thing: above board. But apparently, there are a fair number of people in the US and loads outside of it who define it to mean “increasing.” My weight is on the up and up! My debt is on the up and up! My age is on the up and up!

This definition surprised Nunberg:

Out of curiosity, I sent a question about the item to a discussion group that’s peopled by dialectologists and other devotees of word-lore. I had a note back from someone in Berkeley who told me that he was surprised to hear that “on the up and up” could be used to mean “on the increase.” But when he asked his wife about it, she said that for her that was the only thing it could mean—she never knew it could mean “on the level.” And what made it odder still was that they’ve been married for more than twenty years and both grew up in Southern California.

I had this image of the two of them sitting at the breakfast table. He asks “Is your brother’s new business on the up-and-up?” and she says, “No, but he’s making do.” And they go on like that with neither of them ever realizing that they’re talking at cross-purposes. Deborah Tannen[1], call your office.

It isn’t that this other definition is wrong. Definitions do not define words; they (try to) explain how words are used. And frankly, the “increasing” definition makes more sense than “above board.” Not that I’m going to start using this definition; it sounds childish. “Since he went on that diet, his weight is on the down and down”? I don’t think so.

Language is always inexact. As the Nielsen Family example shows, we can miscommunicate because we don’t communicate. In general, I would rather have someone embarrass me once by pointing out a mispronunciation or misusage, rather than letting me embarrass myself multiple times by saying nothing. But it isn’t always that easy. People are fond of telling me I mispronounce “Godot.”[2] And in cases like “on the up and up” both sides can be right.

If “right” is the right word.


[1] Deborah Tannen is a linguist who has written a lot about miscommunication in relationships. Two of her more famous books, which I highly recommend, are That’s Not What I Meant! How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships and You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.

[2] “Only in American!” I tell them.

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