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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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.
For while BNC, the British National Corpus, shows 18 hits, such as:
But COCA, the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows 135 hits, including many from the last few years:
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:
- In buck up (trans., and intr. for refl.): To dress up.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dang - just realized @tony beat me to the punch on this in his comment.