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I just read the following expression: I have a vague idea what it means but please could a native speaker comment:

"If you're gonna get up in my face you'd better be ready to back it up!"

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this reminds me of "if this thing catches fire, it sure could snowball" –  Neil McGuigan Jan 31 '11 at 18:23
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@el chief - Mixed metaphors FTW! Our family motto is "We'll burn that bridge when we get to it." –  T.E.D. Jul 8 '11 at 12:34

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The first part is idiomatic:

Get up in my face

This refers to the way that someone acting aggressively will often get very close to their opponent and shout in their face. Figuratively speaking, it can also just mean someone being aggressive or antagonistic, without them necessarily getting physically close.

back it up

Means acting on the aggression physically, in this context.

So the whole phrase means:

If you are willing to talk aggressively, you had better be ready to fight too.

The implication is that they had better be ready to fight, because the speaker is.

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Acting on the aggression does not need to be physical. "Back it up" simply means "support it." –  Potatoswatter Jan 31 '11 at 11:50
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I disagree. In this context, backing it up means acting on it physically. What else does it mean? 'If you're gonna get up in my face, you'd better be prepared to make a reasoned and incisive argument in support of your position?' Try that with a guy in a bar and see where it gets you... –  user3444 Jan 31 '11 at 12:03
    
I agree with @Potatoswatter here, it is not unreasonable to use this aggressive statement in a passive aggressive environment. –  Mild Fuzz Jan 31 '11 at 16:39
    
@Elendil: More likely the quote is from somewhere on the Internet, and verbal aggression is the only option :v) . People get pretty worked up about "incisive arguments" these days, for better or worse. –  Potatoswatter Jan 31 '11 at 18:23
    
I think "up in my face" is also a cultural thing: In the US it is normal to stand about an arm's length apart while talking. Anything closer is either intimate or threatening depending on the context. There are other cultures where standing much closer is normal. This page discussing the issue uses the same idiom: edupass.org/culture/personalspace.phtml –  Ben Jackson Jan 31 '11 at 18:44

It means - if you are going to confront me, you should be prepared to fight.

"In my face" means (literally or figuratively) standing face to face within the distance normally considered "personal space" and reserved for contact with close friends. If someone who is not a close friend does this, it is considered aggressive.

"ready to back it up" is a vague cliche that suggests having available supportive material, reasoning or (depending on context) force.

To back someone up is to stand behind them ready to provide assistance.

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Disagree with the last couple paragraphs. Well...its correct in some contexts, but isn't what is meant here. In this case "backing it up" is referring to a person actually doing what they say or imply they are going to do. It is sort of the opposite of bluffing. It using "back" more in a sense of "following right behind" rather than "staying behind and proping up" or acting as a safety net. –  T.E.D. Jul 8 '11 at 12:42

My guess is it is ADDITIONALLY a play on words
Face: front of you
Back: behind you

It rolls off the tongue like Monty Python's "If you're going to split hairs, I'm going to piss off."

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Since this came up in more than one answer/comment...

There are actually quite a few different meanings to "back up". Among them:

  1. Move in reverse, or the wrong direction. Eg: To get out of a parking space, I usually have to back up my car.
  2. Provide support for. Eg: Baseball teams typically have a pitcher, a relief pitcher, and a backup reliever. Writers often need to back up their assertions with statistics.
  3. To make a copy of (kind of the verb form of the previous meaning). eg: It is a good idea to back up important files on your computer.
  4. To follow through with a threat or promise. eg: It's not actually bragging if you can back it up. This is essentially the opposite of bluffing, and this phrase is commonly used to imply a person is bluffing when they get belligerent (or at least to "call the bluff". Fight or don't fight, but shut up either way.)

Now since meaning 2 is also often used in situations that involve physical confrontations (eg: An officer should never enter a house without backup.) I can see where some people could get confused. But whenever you hear something like Don't talk smack unless you can back it up, we are talking about meaning 4.

I first heard both "get all up in my face" and meaning four of "back it up" while hanging out with speakers of AAVE, so I suspect both originated from there (particularly the former). Things like this from AAVE tend to get borrowed by speakers of other North American English dialects because they sound cool (or tough), but I don't know how widely used they are outside of the USA.

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