Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Per this question "Writing things down" vs. "writing things up", it is clear that things can be written "up" (typically in respect to longer entries that are being thoroughly considered) or "down" (typically in respect to quick notes.)

My question is more etymological - the prepositions used would seem to be directional. I would have thought "about" or even "on" would be more logical. And, while one can write "about" a topic or "on" a subject, the prevelance of Up and Down cannot be denied.

So, how is it, etymologically speaking, that things came to be written up or down? Did these happen more or less simultaneously, or is it just a happy circumstance? And why up and down?

share|improve this question
OED dates write up to 1425, and attributes write down to Shakespeare. It's possible he was expanding the language again by using an unusual preposition to nuance an existing expression. –  Andrew Leach Sep 5 '13 at 15:39
@AndrewLeach really? That sounds interesting. Could you post that entry for the benefit of those of us unfortunate enough not to have access to the OED? –  terdon Sep 5 '13 at 15:47
Write down: 1594 Shakespeare Titus Andronicus ii. iv. 3 Write downe thy minde bewray thy meaning so. Write up: a1530 (1425) Andrew of Wyntoun Oryg. Cron. Scotl. (Royal) ix. l. 1177, I wyll noucht wryt wp all, That I hawe sene in my tyme fall. –  Andrew Leach Sep 5 '13 at 15:51
Write out: 1548. Write off (=cancel debt) 1682. Write in (=insert) 1382; (=send a message) 1928. Write over 1597, Shakespeare again. –  Andrew Leach Sep 5 '13 at 15:55
Cool, thanks @AndrewLeach. –  terdon Sep 5 '13 at 16:11
add comment

1 Answer

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Most English prepositions and phrasal verb particles have some intrinsic physical meaning, usually from the perspective of a human body. For instance,

All of these have many other, often idiomatic, metaphoric, and non-physical meanings, too.
And there's loads more prepositions and phrasal verb particles left.
But I'm not going to deal with them here; life is short.

This is only about up and down.

Up and down are directions, but they're directions from the viewpoint of a human. Humans have evolved and adapted to a 1-G environment; we have built-in senses to detect up and down; it's important to humans.

For example, imagine a standing human:

  • Up means the direction from the feet to the head, and continuing beyond.
    Down is the opposite direction.

It is crucial to our species that we can move freely in the first two dimensions -- on a surface -- but we can't move freely in the third, up/down, dimension. Birds and fish have true three-dimensional motion; humans have, at best, 2½-dimensional motion.

But we can look up, even if we can't always go up; and we can tell when something's there. Whether it is or not. That's the source for most of the metaphoric senses of up and down,
which are frequent visitors to phrasal verbs.

These senses often converge on the same situation, as in

  1. He drank it down ~ He drank it up
  2. The house burned down ~ The house burned up
  3. I'll write that down ~ I'll write that up

In each of these, the meaning is not quite the same.

The down cases refer to Physical down --

  • the beer is now down in the stomach;
  • the house was high, now there's only ground left;
  • the writing has been physically put down on the paper
    (this is also coherent with DOWN is CONCRETE;
    writing is very concrete, compared to talk)

But the up cases refer to Completive up. That's the up that means 'to completion; all the way'
You get it in phrasal verbs like
tie (it) up, pack (it) up, finish (it) up, screw (it) up, which mean
to do whatever the verb phrase is as much, as thoroughly, and as completely as possible.

In that context, it's easy to see that beer that is drunk totally has moved downwards,
and that a house that is completely burned is burned to the ground,
and that something that has been written completely is written down on some medium.

There are situations where they fit in different configurations, and -- depending on context and idiom -- you can sometimes see the cracks where they don't quite fit.

As one example, to write something up means to produce a finished version, while to write something down merely means to make a note.

For another, only constructions that are rooted on the ground -- like houses -- can burn down or burn to the ground; if an airliner was completely destroyed by a fire while on the ground you could say that it burned up, but not that it burned down or burned to the ground.

For still another, drink up is coherent with the physical upward movement of the drink container to the lips, while drink down is coherent with the reduced vertical level of the liquid in the container after drinking.

As to when this happened, there are dates in dictionaries; they represent first appearance in surviving text, which may or may not represent actual speech. But the meanings are primal enough to occur to anybody, and to be easily passed along to the next generation where they hadn't already been figured out. Like a lot of things, they keep getting rediscovered and reinforced.

So it isn't that up and down are associated with writing as such, it's just that they form pretty typical phrasal verbs with write, just like they do with thousands of other verbs.

share|improve this answer
Very thought provoking; thank you. –  Pieter Geerkens Sep 6 '13 at 2:09
What about the phrase; "I would like to take up dancing?" That has a different meaning from thoroughly completing a task, and there's nothing directional that could indicate to a non-native speaker its real meaning. Nevertheless, I shall remember your clear explanation and examples (really appreciate "the house burned up/down") next time a student asks me why we have the phrasal expression "write down". I had always said because we put our pens down on paper while conveniently ignoring the "write up" expression. Thank you. –  Mari-Lou A Sep 6 '13 at 2:11
The completive is only one of the several senses of up. The sense of take up is a metaphorical physical one, not a completive one. The metaphor is that activities are objects (on a table, say) which are taken up, used, and put away like toys, so taking up dancing means picking up that toy from the metaphoric table of one's activities. Another case of UP is ACTIVE. –  John Lawler Sep 6 '13 at 5:01
BTW, @Mari-LouA, I hadn't meant this list to be exhaustive, just exemplary. As I said, life is short. But thank you, in turn. We try. –  John Lawler Sep 6 '13 at 5:03
Yes, it was clear that you were focussing on the specific question but I had read the link and I couldn't see where "take up" fitted. I do now so, many thanks again. –  Mari-Lou A Sep 6 '13 at 5:11
show 1 more comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.