I was curious as to if anyone knew of the origins of the idiom "to stand someone up" in the sense of:

  • My date stood me up.
  • Do you think he'll stand us up again?
  • She stood me up last night.

I did a quick search online, and I wasn't able to find an answer that was very satisfying. I did find a creative folk etymology or two, but there wasn't much to substantiate them.

  • There are many "folksy" origins for it, by which I mean cutesy stories claiming to be the origin of the phrase which are likely untrue. The most compelling one I've seen so far is someone who said it was probably a modification of "being left standing (at the altar)" as a phrase describing someone who was abandoned at their wedding, and the meaning was expanded to cover dates/romantic meetings as well. Mar 3, 2016 at 15:10
  • "To leave someone standing at the altar" is what I was taught as the etymology of the phrase...you can just imagine him or her standing up there...but I've never tried to substantiate what was a one-time explanation in grade school.
    – Egox
    Mar 3, 2016 at 15:21
  • Good question. one of the discussions in this link suggests something similar to what @JohnClifford has said in his comment above.
    – BiscuitBoy
    Mar 3, 2016 at 16:09
  • Good question. The idiom has been around forever, but I've never seen any hint of an explanation for it.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 3, 2016 at 17:48

4 Answers 4


There isn't much to go on in the OED:

  1. To fail to keep an appointment with (someone), esp. a social engagement or ‘date’ with a member of the opposite sex. colloq. (orig. U.S.).

1902 O. V. Limerick Billy Burgundy's Opinions 57, I am awfully sorry I had to stand you up last night.

The unexplicated meaning and timeframe is also given by the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English and by Cassell's Dictionary of Slang.

If you allow additional prepositions into the construction, there are a wide variety of additional possibilities, as the commenters note. To stand up with someone is to dance with them; OED quotes Austen's Pride and Prejudice, In vain did she entreat him to stand up with somebody else. It is also to present oneself for marriage, and to have an engagement canceled at the last moment is to be left standing at the altar. From there, to stand someone up could be derived as making a romantic promise to someone but not following through on your end of the obligation.

But to stand up stand up alone, without other prepositions, I can make some additional hypotheses. While the 1903 Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present by John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley does not include the "missed date" meaning, serendipitously, I find an entry for stander-up:

subs. phr. (American thieves') A thief whose speciality is robbing drunken men under the pretence of helping them home

Stander-up also appears in the 1897 A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant Embracing English, American, and Anglo-Indian Slang, Pidgin English, Gypsies' Jargon and Other Irregular Phraseology, edited by Albert Barrère and Charles Godfrey Leland.

(American thieves) a man who robs intoxicated persons under pretence of aiding them to go home.

They gave Chandler the name of being a stander-up of drunken men. The proper mode of standing-up a tipsy man, according to the rules, is to place your right arm under the left arm of the sleeper close to the shoulder, placing the hand on his waistcoat, just above his left vest pocket. As you raise him with the right hand, press your hand hard against his body so that he will not feel the watch slipping from his pocket into your left hand. — Philadelphia Press.

Partridge's A Dictionary of the Underworld traces this meaning to about 1880, noting both of the above references, which would have allowed time for a metaphorical meaning to take hold. While the robber stands up a slouching drunk in the literal sense, both the robber and the bad date feign an interest in someone only to insult them in the end. This would also explain how this deprecatory sense could emerge even though being a stand-up person, or standing up to/for/against/with someone or something, is mostly neutral or positive.

Alternatively, a contemporaneous meaning of standup is robbery in a public place, what in more recent slang we would refer to as a mugging (or stickup, unrelated, from the robber's order to stick your hands up). The abandoned date doesn't suffer anything so violent, of course, but they are robbed of dignity in a public place.

And for yet another, one which I cannot date but which does appear in a 1919 Saturday Evening Post article, to stand up can be to cost someone something.

“My first-act dress will stand you up about seven and a quarter,” I told him. “And my third-act dress will cost you all of nine dollars and fifty cents.”

Again, the cost may come only in pride and time, but it is a cost nonetheless.


'Stand [someone] up' in slang dictionaries

Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960) traces the expression "stand [someone] up" to the 1920s and 1930s:

stand [someone] up 1 To fail to keep an appointment, usu. a date,leaving the person standing and waitingat the appointed place; to break a date without giving advance notice. 1937: "You won't stand me up now, will you?" [Jerome] Wiedman, [I Can Get It for You] Wholesale, 73. --> 2 To break an engagement; to discontinue a love affair. 1929: "He thinks she has given him the go-by {stood him up}." Frank Sullivan, New Yorker, Feb. 16, 20/2.

Robert Chapman & Barbaara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) pushes the origin of the phrase back to the late 1800s:

stand someone up v phr fr late 1800s To fail to keep an appointment, esp a date, with someone. You won't stand me up now, will you?—Jerome Weidman {perhaps related to stand up in the sense "go through a wedding ceremony." the image being the forsaken bride or groom left standing alone at the altar}

'Stand [someone] up' in Google Books results

The earliest Google Books match that I could find for the expression is in O. Henry, "The Love Philtre of Ikey Schoenstein" (1906), reprinted in The Complete Works of O. Henry (1911):

"That is," he [Chunk McGowan] continued, "if she [Rosy Riddle] keeps in the notion until the time comes. We've been layin' pipes for the getaway [elopement] for two weeks. One day she says she will; the same evenin' she says nixy. We've agreed on to-night, and Rosy's stuck to the affirmative this time for two whole days. But it's five hours yet till the time, and I'm afraid she'll stand me up when it comes to the scratch."

It thus appears that as early as 1906, the phrase "stand me up" was used in the sense of "leave me standing and waiting in vain."

Update: As noted in a comment below, DavePhD has found an even earlier match for the phrase "stood you up." From E.M. Harland, "The New South" in The Bachelor of Arts (February 1898):

"She's no right in that car; that car's for white folks. The Constitution of Tennessee says so. She's got to go into her own car with her own cul'd folks; yes, sir."

"Say, Scovel, what's the matter with you anyway? What do you care? She's stood you up?"

"No matter what she's gone an' done. She's in the wrong car now, I reckon. She purtending to be a white gal—hoo! hoo!"

An interesting but (I suspect) unrelated sense of the term appears in Richard Harding Davis, The Deserter (1917):

"You can go to the devil for all I care," I assured him. "I wasn't considering you at all. I was only sorry that I'll never be able to read your book."

For a moment Mr. Hamlin remained silent, then he burst forth with a jeer.

"No British firing squad," he boasted, "will ever stand me up."

"Maybe not," I agreed, "but you will never write that book."

Here the sense of "stand me up" is clearly "stand me up against a wall in order to shoot me." The use of "stand [someone] up" for execution is not rare in the late 1800s, but I take it to be a literal usage and not closely connected to the figurative sense of "left standing and waiting."

'Stand [someone] up' in old newspapers

One early occurrence of the idiom in the sense that the OP asks about is from "14 Years Old and In Love: Little Jeanette Painter True to Her Charley, but They Are Separated," in the [New York] Sun (May 23, 1894):

The letter was under the girl's pillow, and Mrs. Painter opened it. She found that Jeannette had written it. The letter began with "My own, dear Charley," and begged Charley to be sure and meet her on Monday night. It ran thus:

"Oh, how happy I expect soon to be. Do not forget to meet me to-night as I will be all prepared to do as I promised you last week. I know that I stood you up once, but I couldn't get out of the house. But I won't stand you up this time. If I do, I know we will part forever, but I know it won't be, because I expect to be your little wifey. ..."

Another is from "Looking for Gentry: Madge Yorke's Murderer Successfully Eludes the Police," in the [New York] Evening World (February 19, 1895):

At 1 in the afternoon Gentry met an actress acquaintance and when noticing his gloomy appearance, she asked him what was the matter, he exclaimed:

"Matter! A great deal's the matter. I guess you'd look gloomy if your girl had stood you up."

To Charles B. Ward, a tenor in "McFadden's Elopement," Gentry talked wildly about his love, and said he was going to Philadelphia to find out what Madge meant by breaking an engagement with him, ...

Other meanings of 'stand [someone] up'

As choster notes in another answer to this question, "stand [someone] up" could also mean, in the late 1800s, "rob [someone]" or (presumably as a later development from that meaning) "ask [someone] for money as a gift or favor." An unusual third sense of the phrase appears in "Assault Upon an Editor," in the New Orleans [Louisiana] Daily Democrat [October 26, 1877):

The affair was occasioned by a special publication he [Hugh Mullen, the editor] wrote, purporting to come from Avondale, Pa., and describing the magnificent grounds there of Mr. [Charles] Haines [an assistant highways commissioner], with the elegant residence built thereon by that gentleman, and wondering at the expenditure of money evidenced, when Mr. Haines' salary is only $2000 a year. Haines is a powerful man, weighing about 200 pounds, while Mullen is slightly built, and has only recently recovered from a spell of sickness.

Mr. Mullin was seated at his desk when Haines entered the room, and, approaching, asked him what he meant by "standing him up" in his paper. Mullen replied, "I don't know that I have stood you up," whereupon Haines struck him violently in the face, which caused blood to flow freely.

Here, "stood [someone] up" seems to mean something like "put [someone] on display for public censure or ridicule." A similar instance of this phrase appears in "The Oregon Boot: An Ex-Chain Gang Member Describes the Shackle," in the Los Angeles Herald (May 4, 1892):

You may think it was fun. Well, probably it was to the people who passed by and saw us hobbling around. I heard one woman who was driving by ask if I was a murderer. If she could have had my head about that time she might have sympathgized with me a little bit. I am not a tramp, rough as I look, but did get drunk; I don't deny it. It looked hard to stand me up before people that way, like a low-down thief, and I felt it.

Yet another sense of the phrase is noted in the Butler [Pennsylvania] Citizen (December 29, 1893):

"You are standing me up" is the latest phrase with the man who suspects he is being fooled.


The idiomatic use of "stand [someone] up" to mean fail to appear as promised at a planned meeting place seems to go back to at least 1894. Although there were other meanings of "stand [someone] up" prior to and contemporaneous with that meaning in its early days of existence, it is not clear whether they had any direct influence on the emergence of the new meaning—and in particular, whether one of them may have been the source of it.

  • 1
    See the 1898 "The New South" in The Bachelor of Arts volume 4, at page 675, "Say, Scovel, what's the matter with you anyway ? What do you care ? She's stood you up ?" (Warning: extreme racial-slur content )books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Mar 3, 2016 at 18:16
  • @DavePhD: Excellent find. I don't know why my Ngram-based Google Books search failed to turn this instance up, but it didn't. In any event, I'll add the instance to my answer, if you don't object.
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 3, 2016 at 18:39
  • 1
    Earlier there is the 1894 "Ah There! Pickings from Lobby Chatter in the Cincinnati Enquirer", page 230, "I turned 'em away nightly last week, and I stood 'em up at every performance in Lampwick.” books.google.com/… you could add that too if you think it's appropriate
    – DavePhD
    Mar 3, 2016 at 18:52
  • what about this one from 1873, I don't understand the meaning really, "Yes, I was stood up to Jope's, and they waited a minute or two there", from "The Prescotts of Pamphillon" in The Living Age vol. 117, at page 624 books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Mar 3, 2016 at 21:08
  • 1
    There is a 1890 American dialect dictionary that has an entry: 'to stand one up and down' = to contend vehemently. 'She stood me up and down that I was mistaken.' books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Mar 7, 2016 at 19:19

It seems to have an earlier meaning of more generally being stopped and made to wait.

A very early example is from Reports of the Committees of the House of Representatives for the First Session of the Forty-third Congress, vol. V.

There is the following statement from 21 May 1874, report 785, page 217:

I said to the major, then, "The party has promised to telegraph me. I will wait and see if he does. If he don't, I won't have much confidence in the statement," and as he did not telegraph me, I did not pay any more attention to it. I then came to the conclusion that he was what we may term standing me up there to have a conversation with me so that some other person could get a look at me

And 2 pages later he asks "Do you want to know why I account for my judgment of standing me up?

Another example is the article "FORTY PASSENGERS STOOD UP AND ROBBED", front page of the Sacramento Union 08 July 1906.

Forty passengers were stood up in the road while the robber went through their clothes

So the meaning of "stood up" here is not really being the act of being robbed itself, but the act of being stopped and made to wait (probably standing).

Also, the word "stand" itself has the meanings according to the 1828 Webster's American Dictionary:

  1. To stop; to halt; not to proceed

  2. To stop; to be at a stationary point.

And very similarly Samuel Johnson's 1768 dictionary has:

  1. To stop, to halt, to not go forward [citation to Shakespeare]

  2. To be at a stationary point without progress or regression [citation to Pope]

This meaning is often seen in the form of "No Standing" signs, meaning, you can not stop and wait there in your vehicle.

With this meaning of "stand" in mind, the idea of a date making you "stand" (be at a stationary point without progress or regression), is almost a literal meaning.

There is a really good early example of "stood up" used just as we do today from the 13 January 1886 Puck vol. 18, page 315:

Miss Kate Osterhout, of Port Jervis, New Jersey, complains to Mr. Goodall that she has been "stood up"— to use a technical expression — and no right feeling person will deny the poetess sympathy, when she informs the proprietor of the Sun:

Disappointed again, I am waiting.
The foot steps have ceased, I 'm alone,
With none but the stars and the zephyrs.
To watch for my darling-my own.

He bade me be here in the even,
When the moon tipped the top of the trees,
And the whip-poor-will's song in the woodland
Floats lightly along in the breeze.

However, it is easily explained, and Miss Kate will readily perceive that the young man whom she refers to as her darling— her own — was only perpetrating a practical joke upon her. According to her own statement, he bade her be there in the evening when the moon tipped the top of the trees; and, as the moon did not tip the top of the trees at all that evening, and has not tipped the top of the trees before or since, and couldn't if it tried, he was justified — by the letter of the contract — in going down to the village to play pool

  • I would observe that, say, a stage coach that was being "held up" would itself be made to "stand" while the occupants were shaken down. And a train "stands" on the track when stopped temporarily for another train to pass, say. So an idiomatic meaning of "stand" to mean "stopped at a non-terminal location" may have been well-established.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 5, 2016 at 1:26
  • +1 for yet another excellent find—from way back in 1886!
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 5, 2016 at 1:28
  • @HotLicks In view of the 1896 sentence "I have been 'stood up' in the shades of Madison Square for a quarter by a man I hailed at college as America's rising Webster.", the usage doesn't seem limited to vehicles. google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Mar 7, 2016 at 14:32

Such expressions as to stand someone up that are twisted and queer are mostly reduced from longer expressions with two verbs or two ideas. One possible explanation for "She stood me up last night" might be:

She made me stand at the appointed place waiting for her till a reasonable time for her appearance was up. Over two or three generations such sentences can be reduced in various forms till at last something like "She stood me up" is reached.

For such twisted expressions of unknown origin one can only try to find plausible hypothetical explanations which might help get an understanding for such queer expressions.

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