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Is the phrasal verb buck up used only in British English?

I’ve never heard an American use the word buck up to mean cheer up; I suspect the phrasal verb is only used in British English.

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    They use it several times in The Big bang Theory, I on the other hand have never heard anyone say it in person in my 23 years of living in the UK, if anything I think this term is used only in the USA – Jalapeno Feb 20 '18 at 17:18
  • Jonas Bezzubovas, I've seen and heard it several times in Harry Potter books and movies. – BeatsMe Feb 20 '18 at 17:33
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    @BeatsMe It only appears once in the entire Harry Potter heptalogy, at least in the books: in Chamber of Secrets, when Wood says to Harry, “Harry, buck up there, you need a decent breakfast” right before the Quidditch match that gets cancelled when Hermione and Penelope Clearwater get attacked. Molly Weasley also says, “Then you just buck up your ideas, young man!” to Ron in Half-Blood Prince, but that’s a different sense of the word. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 20 '18 at 17:51
  • @Janus Bahs Jacquet Another example: In the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, I remember Arthur saying “Please pay attention! It's your brother's wedding. Buck up.” – BeatsMe Feb 20 '18 at 18:14
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    @Rupe: According to the OED, no, per tchrist's answer below. – T.J. Crowder Feb 21 '18 at 18:34
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Answer: nope!

Your impression appears to be an instance of the locality illusion, in which if you yourself don’t use something you overly generalize personal disuse to a much broader community via negative confirmation bias. It’s a form of cognitive bias that leads you to draw the wrong conclusion.

In Corpora

For while BNC, the British National Corpus, shows 18 hits, such as:

  • My eyes hurt. I've got earache. I wish it would buck up and be Monday. Lousy dump.
  • 'Oh go on, then. But darling -- do buck up, eh?'
  • hang my head in shame over the Bill Clinton sex scandal. I say, buck up, Bill -- if you're man enough for Gennifer, you're man
  • Maybe this song will catch on, but I think Deano needs to buck up a bit for it to get sung some more.

But COCA, the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows 135 hits, including many from the last few years:

  • How about the macho, construction-guy father who tells his son to buck up, show some spunk, quit whining about the small stuff, climb the
  • this was the first of three instances in which sisters told their brothers to basically buck up. Sansa Stark, Margaery Tyrell, and Yara Greyjoy all had to do
  • Show a little more joy, thought Mr. Burdick; buck up and smell the roses, for heaven's sake.
  • Matthew laughed also, a laugh that said. Buck up. Four Eyes. This is life. Isn't it great?

In the OED

It appears to be common enough. The OED lists ten completely different entries for the verb to buck, ten different headwords. This one, the buck up version, is marked dial. or colloq. and dates from 1854. It has two primary senses, the first as a synonym for dress up with only a pair of citations from the 19th century, and the second with two subsenses, each with many citations, quite a few from the 20th century:

  1. In buck up (trans., and intr. for refl.): To dress up.
  2. to buck up.
    • a. intr. To cheer up, be encouraged. Also trans. in causal sense.
    • b. intr. To make an effort, to ‘brace up’; to hurry up.

As for popularity, it’s in their “Frequency Band 4”:

This word belongs in Frequency Band 4. Band 4 contains words which occur between 0.1 and 1.0 times per million words in typical modern English usage. Such words are marked by much greater specificity and a wider range of register, regionality, and subject domain than those found in bands 8-5. However, most words remain recognizable to English-speakers, and are likely be used unproblematically in fiction or journalism. Examples include overhang, life support, register, rewrite, nutshell, candlestick, rodeo, embouchure, insectivore ...

One of the earlier citations is from Barrere and Leland Dictionary of slang, jargon and cant published in Edinburgh in 1889 and 1890 (2 volumes), and an even earlier gloss for it is given in the 1875 Lancashire Glossary.

In Google ngrams

Here’s a Google ngram comparing US usage with UK usage:

Google ngram comparing US usage with UK usage of "buck up"

There might be a bit more relatively frequency in Britain during the 1980s than in America, but for the most part, the two corpora show the same relative frequency throughout their active life.

Conclusion

So the term may well originate in the 19th century from one or another dialect from the North of England or from Scotland, but the 20th-century citations given are not particularly regional, and the abundance of recent examples in COCA shows that this sense of to buck up is alive and well in contemporary American English.

You just haven’t personally heard or read it used — like I said, that’s probably just the locality illusion fuelling negative confirmation bias.

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    I only hear buck up in the context of imperative {You'd better} buck up your ideas! (become more serious, energetic, and hard-working). Which is common enough to chart against the BrE corpus in that NGram, but not against AmE corpus.. The sense of imperative buck up = cheer up sounds to me like something out of children's books by Enid Blyton & the like (i.e. - 50-100 years past its sell-by date! :) – FumbleFingers Feb 20 '18 at 16:12
  • You haven't distinguished the meaning of "Man up! Put up or shut up!" which you've included in your COCA citations. – KarlG Feb 20 '18 at 23:16
  • @KarlG Aren’t those just OED sense 2b? – tchrist Feb 21 '18 at 4:35
  • Your macho dad is not merely telling his son to summon his courage or be more resolute but is expecting him to conform to the dad's understanding of masculinity. "Man up and quit whining!" The OED is milder than that, more middle class. – KarlG Feb 21 '18 at 4:45
  • BTW, in that first US example, show some spunk might not have quite the same meaning if used in the UK... – Toby Speight Feb 21 '18 at 15:15
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Americans also use buck up in the sense of "cheer up, take heart":

This isn’t another “buck up, Buster, it’ll be okay” article. — Snow College (Ephraim UT) Snowdrift

Buck up, America, it's going to get better. — headline, Washington Post, 7/9/2013

Buck up, Democrats — headline, New York Times, 6/21/2017

In another sense, however, buck up means "quit complaining, whining, feeling sorry for yourself, etc." Here, for instance, is your polar opposite, a man married to an American woman who has never heard the expression in the UK:

My lovely wife (from Portland, Maine) sometimes uses the phrase 'buck up' and I think the meaning is similar to 'suck it up' or just to deal with the issue. We have run into at least one other person (from Iowa) who instantly recognized this phrase and said his dad used this phrase with him as a young man.

And finally, in the same sense:

Buck up or stay in the truck. — Sarah Palin, half-term governor of Alaska

I suspect this usage is predominantly, if not exclusively, American.

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    "Suck it up" or "man up" is the primary meaning of "buck up" for me. It's driving me insane that dictionaries I've checked don't have this sense. In any case, here's another source. – Laurel Feb 20 '18 at 17:53
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    @Laurel: Same here really. When I first read the question I heard a voice from the deep past: "Buck up, buster! Quit yer belly-aching!" – KarlG Feb 20 '18 at 20:54
  • @KarlG I see you knew my grandfather. :) – tchrist Feb 25 '18 at 21:27
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The expression is of British origin, but I think it is common also in AmE, (see Google Books):

The AHD defines the phrasal verb buck up as:

Cheer up, become encouraged, as in Buck up! We'll soon have it done, or Even the promise of a vacation did not buck her up. This term was first recorded in 1844.

For example:

Buck Up, Suck Up . . . and Come Back When You Foul Up: by James Carville, ‎Paul Begala -

buck up verb phrase

To cheer up; brace : Immigrant life lets people down as soon as it bucks them up (1850s+ British schools)

(The American Dictionary of Slang)

Buck, originally a male deer, was. used from the 18th century to refer to a man, “especially "fashionable man" (1725); also used of a male Native American (c. 1800) or Negro (1835).

Buck up "cheer up" is from 1844, probably from the noun in the "man" sense.

(Etymonline)

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I'd heard the phrase, buck up, buckaroo throughout my childhood in MS.

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  • Don't know why that was downvoted - I've heard that saying before too(I'm not American though). – Andre Feb 21 '18 at 15:27
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Americans use "Buck up" too.

I won't try to compete with the extensive answer provided by @tchrist, but instead will offer this one bit of cultural evidence from 1985 that shows Americans use the phrase. In this instance, it's used to mean "Cheer up."

Curtis Armstrong speaking to John Cusack in Better Off Dead.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6z9MHWvJM9w

Dang - just realized @tony beat me to the punch on this in his comment.

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It’s used in Irish English as well as British English for starters. It’s also used by some Americans, but it’s not as popular as it is across the Atlantic.

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