Does anyone know the exact origin and date of use of the English tri-part phrasal verb, "come up with"? It was started to be used around the early 1900s in the States, but what is the origin of its current use; that is, "to think up," "produce," "invent," etc.?

3 Answers 3


It was used much earlier than that (1789)

And here (1594)

where it meant to approach and draw even with used in the context of sailing up even with a ship or group of ships.

  • But when did it take on its current meaning? Thanks! Feb 4, 2013 at 5:44

The OED says the current meaning is from the US with a first quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934.

"To come up" meaning "to present in one's mind" is 1844. Meaning "to rise in rank or position" is 1530.

There's an earlier nautical "to come to a direction" meaning "to come as close to the wind a possible" from 1633, sometimes used as in "to come up with the wind". Also used of people from 1678, meaning "to catch up from behind, become equal with".

  • Thank you! In what literary work was that? Feb 4, 2013 at 6:01
  • @PatrickT.Randolph: It's from The letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Andrew Turnbull) · 1st U.K. edition, 1964 (1 vol.).
    – Hugo
    Feb 4, 2013 at 12:50

Come up with today means approximately “find, think of”, often with a suggestion that what has been found is a far-fetched invention, or improvised solution.

She's come up with some amazing scheme to double her income. —Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and Thesaurus.
I came up with a date at the last minute. —McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

However, the very old sense cited by Jim and Hugo—essentially what we would now express as catch up with—was in wide use in the first part of the 20th century; and the earliest use of come up with in the present-day sense I’ve found on Google Books suggests a similar deliberate pursuit of an idea:

There should be an unbiased method of investigation to come up with a universally accepted compilation of personality traits. —Great Britain, Board of Education. Pyschological Tests, 1928.

It’s possible that the present-day sense derives from overlap with another use of the collocation. I found several instances in the period 1925-1935 of someone falling and then rising with a happy discovery:

“Talk about luck! Why, if Muggy Callahan was to fall overboard he — he'd come up with a fish in his mouth — a fried fish!” —Boys’ Life, 1928.

  • "Come up with" has no notion of being a far-fetched invention in the States. It is used as a legitimate tri-part phrasal verb, meaning to think up, create, produce, invent, make, and to plan. Feb 5, 2013 at 6:51
  • @PatrickT.Randolph It doesn't have to mean far-fetched or improvised, but it often does - "Here's a thought I just came up with" - so it has drifted away from its original sense of catch up with after long pursuit. Feb 5, 2013 at 10:30

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

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