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The President-elect tried to buck up weary Americans with a hopeful Thanksgiving message this week, promising that this "grim season of division" would soon give way to a year of light and unity.

CNN

Initial online searches for the origin of the idiomatic phrasal verb "buck up" yield...

This phrase originated in the southern part of the United States and it derives directly from the word "buck" which has the same meaning as stag. The stag is a majestic animal and so to buck up initially meant to look smarter or tidy up one's appearance. Later, it evolved to being used to mean to cheer up or to just move on after a bad experience.

Source: theidioms.com

In other words, an American origin.

On the other hand hand,

This website says the phrase originated in British public school slang.

It is a phrase from nineteenth century Britain, derived from those bucks or dandies who were regarded as the acme of snappy dressing in the Regency period. (In its turn, that word came from buck in the sense of the animal, and had a slightly older meaning still that suggested male gaiety or spirit, with unsubtle suggestions of rutting deer.) In its dandyfied sense buck up first meant to dress smartly, for a man to get out of those comfortable old clothes and into something drop-dead gorgeous. Since to do so was often a fillip to the spirit, the phrase shifted sometime around the 1880s to its modern meaning.

It seems to have been public school slang to start with, probably from Winchester College, and rather stiff-upper-lip British. It could suggest that the person being addressed should stop acting like a wuss, ninny or coward, as here from Edith Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods of 1901: “Be a man! Buck up!”, and was something of a cliché at one time in stories of Englishmen abroad bravely facing adversity.

PhraseFinder quotes SOED and states it is eighteenth century. I have tried fact-checking the quote, but the site does not load.

"According to the SOED it derives from the eighteenth-century "buck" meaning a dashing gallant fellow...

All seem to be a verbification of buck (noun).

buck

the male of some horned animals, especially the fallow deer, roe deer, reindeer, and antelopes.

-Lexico

The post "Is the phrasal verb “buck up” used only in British English, not in American English?" only partially answers the question.

Is "buck up" originally from AmE, or BrE? And when?


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    I would be inclined to accept "Worldwide Words". The author was meticulous in his research. Furthermore, it agrees with the OED. – Greybeard Nov 30 '20 at 19:39
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    WritingExplained has some interesting info about 'buck up'. – Decapitated Soul Nov 30 '20 at 19:44
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Early instances from U.S. newspapers

Here are four instances of "buck up" used as a verb phrase in the United States during the 1830s.

From "Joe Bunker's Story," in the [Lawrenceburg] Indiana Palladium (June 30, 1832), reprinted from the Camden Mail:

I kind a reckon none of you ever heard of Deby Snook, caze its a tarnation great secrete, and if her brother, Abe, was to ever know I told any tiling, or let that cat out of the bag, you see it's jist as like as not he'd cut my sneezer, by hooky.—Deby is a monstress nice gal, she's about as slick as an elephant's tusk, mind I tell you. I seed her at church one day fixed up kinder pretty snug—so says I to myself, I reckon that aint a slow kind of a bit of furnature, and darn my seal skin pumps, if I don't buck up to her next First-day—she's a dreadful nice gal I tell you.—Well I guess next First-day I was jist as slick as any chap you ever seed; I put on a spanking new hat, brown coat, with a new pair of check pants, and slid into them are new seal skin pumps, what josh Wax made me out of dog skin, caze I sold him a painted cat skin for otter hide, I guess he dident get much cut of me, any how.

From "Premonitory Symptoms," in the Alexandria [Virginia] Phenix Gazette (August 3, 1832):

When a wealthy bachelor bucks up in his old age, takes to visiting the ladies—his heirs at law, you may depend, will be wide awake at the premonitory symptoms.

From an untitled brief item in the [Gettysburg, Pennsylvania] Star (July 4, 1836):

We are highly grateful to perceive that our neighbor of the "REPUBLICAN COMPILER" is enabled "without the aid of Bank bonus or official patronage," to "requite the liberality and approbation" of his Democratic patrons, by an enlargement and improvement of his paper." So soon as "the Bank," gives us a "bonus," or all our delinquent patrons "buck up" we will try and enlurge our paper also.

From "Take Notice," in the [Pontiac, Michigan] Jacksonian (February 12, 1839):

All persons who are owing this establishment for advertising or job work are hereby notified that unless their accounts are paid or settled by note previous to the 12th day March next, they will be SUED WITHOUT FAIL.

There are certain persons who are owing us over fifty dollars for a particular kind of job work, executed about election time who are soberly and seriously assured that they will save credit as well as cost by settling for it immediately. We have waited till our patience is becoming exhausted. We don’t like to expose our friends, but must do it unless they 'buck up.'

No subscription will hereafter be received, advertisements inserted, or work delivered at this office unless paid in advance, or settled by note. Saving and excepting county printing and such other public and legal advertising as our friends at a distance may furnish us for which it may not be convenient to settle as above.

The earlier two instances seem to be using "buck up" in the sense of "go courting." The later two instances seem to be using the same term in the sense of "pay up" (as in the kindred phrase "pony up"). All four instances are older than the earliest British instance cited in the answers posted by Nigel J and user121863. I have not searched other databases, however, to see whether there may be even earlier instances of "buck up" from either the U.S. or Britain.


Early instances from Google Books and Hathi Trust searches

Google Books and Hathi Trust searches find various matches for "buck up" in the two senses previously noted. Some of these are slightly older than the newspaper examples; others are roguhly the same age.

From "Paunch Hogabout, A Moral Tale," in The Atlantic Magazine (September 1824):

As their conversation increased in interest, Little Silvy had gradually approached so close to the table, that he appeared to be one of its regular customers ; and when, at the conclusion of their meal, every man that had partaken of Aunty Herringblob's breakfast, had planked his two shillings, and the old lady had counted her money, with true old fashioned scrupulosity, she remarked that two shillings were wanting to make up for all the noses that had been at table. Every man, save Silvy, vociferously swore that he had ponied up his "quarter:" whereupon the landlady observed that Silvy the les had not paid his reckoning. Silvy, vaporing with wrath, insisted upon knowing "vether she meant for to say as he did'nt buck up his nine pence for his bed?" and intimated that she'd better not be a comin' over him vid no more of them ere insițivations."

From C.A. Somerset, "Sylvana: An Opera, in Three Acts," in Cumberland's Minor Theatre, volume 3 (London, 1828/1836):

Crip. An angel! [Aside.] One of the fallen angels, though. [To Sylvana.] Permit me, Miss Angel, to have the honour of paying you my most profound respects. Egad! she doesn't seem half so fierce as the bear I killed this morning; courage! Signor Crips—I'll buck up to her, a bit ; Miss Beelze— [Checking himself.] Miss Angel, I mean, allow me to take a nearer view of our beautiful, blazing, brimstone eyes, and have the honour of kissing your pretty little cloven foot? [Going to kiss her hand, Sylvana gives him a violent box on the ear.] Oh, dear! my poor ear! this comes of being over polite, and having intercourse with evil spirits.

From Anna Morgan, Horatio in Search of a Wife: A Tale of Modern Times (Leeds, 1830):

That old pump's worth 150,000l. said Granby; and that six feet of ill-looking skin and bone, is to tumble into it; do you know, I think he's bucking up to our Letty; he'll be a rum guy for a brother in law.

...

Mrs. Blinks, jun. good-naturedly remarked "that the brute had no remorse, and was as gay as if he had not the death of poor Emily to answer for;" and her father-in-law observed, with an air of unnecessary mystery, "that he could see with half an eye who Mr. Bygrove was bucking up to." And then screwing up his idiotic face into an appearance of baboonic shrewdness, he said, "that there Lady Roden's just fit for him, for I understand she sits up half the night making of poetry;—but I've my suspicions as she's no better than she should be, for they tells me as she can talk Latin!"

From James Paulding, The Dutchman's Fireside: A Tale (New York, 1831):

He [Vancour] insisted on his [Sybrandt's] accompanying him, the next morning, to pay his devoirs to the young lady ; and accordingly an interview took place between them. On the part of Sybrandt it was shy and embarrassed, a mixture of pride and timidity ; on that of Catalina, sprightly and good-humoured, with a sly expresion of slighting superiority, which to one of his quick feelings was calculated to increase his embarrassment, and make him appear still more awkward and stupid. The noisy, but well-meaning Ariel, made matters still worse, by occasionally urging the young man to “buck up," as he called it, to the young lady, and show his breeding. Poor Sybrandt wished himself a thousand miles away.

From "A Trip to Yorkshire with Mr. Jorrocks," in The New Sporting Magazine (July 1833):

"That's right, Colonel, you are yourself again ; I always thought you would come back into the right course; and now you are good for a glass of claret or light hermitage. Come, old boy, buck up, and give a loose to pleasure for once in your life, and may you never know what it is to want, as the beggarboys say." "For once, aye that's what you always say; but your once comes so werry often, I declare you are the most 'spirituelle' man I know, as the Countess Benwolio would say."

From Ensign O'Donoghue, "Country Quarters," in Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country (London, February 1835):

"Oh! you were asking who was likely to be at Moriartyville," said the doctor, seeing and dreading something like a storm brewing behind Tyrconnel's clouded left eye-brow. "The two ladies themselves—mighty elegant women!—Mr. Fin, of Kilpeacon—a mighty nice gentleman, indeed, and, some say, bucking up to the widow herself, like a bold man!"

From "Racing: Newmarket July Meeting" in [London] Sporting Review (August 1835):

This was not by any means a good betting race—not that it was deficient in interest, but that the large amount of arrears due from Chifney, rendered it doubtful whether they would be paid up, so as to allow him to start the horse. This uncertainty continued up to the morning of the race, and as a matter of course speculation was crippled by it; at the eleventh hour, however, a kind of friend, who has a pretty extensive acquaintance at Newmarket ) bucked up, and the horse was immediately backed at 7 to 4 with great spirit.

From "The Bride of Bearhaven; or The Grandfather's Prophecy," in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine (December 1836):

This interval of non-intercourse was not, however, passed altogether in idleness. On shore, the native beaux were busy in bucking up their holiday clothes—the belles , in curling and clear-starching ; while, on board, the mates and middies were equally industrious in furbishing up their uniforms and shore-going toggery.

The earliest of these instances, from 1824, is from The Atlantic—a U.S. monthly magazine—but the next-earliest, from 1828, is from a collection of British plays. The 1824 instance involves "buck up" in the sense of "pay up"; but an 1835 instance from the London Sporting News uses the term in a very similar sense. The other matches involve courtship or preparing for it.


Fourt much earlier instances of 'buck up'

In addition to all of the preceding instances of "buck up," searches turn up four instances from the years 1767, 1797, 1808, and 1809. The first of these uses the phrase in a seemingly very different sense from the two we have encountered previously. From an untitled letter in The Babler, number 83 (August 28, 1767):

There are a number of infatuated young people, Mr. Babler, who because they see what an easy appearance the performers of the London Theatres generally make, are idle enough to suppose that the very meanest stages of an itinerant actor must afford at least a tollerable maintenance. But, alas, Sir, abstracted from the continual contempts to which the profession is liable, there is not a more miserable way of getting bread in the universe ; I have many nights played Calista for two-pence halfpenny ; and sometimes after exhausting my spirits perhaps as a Tragedy Queen for a whole night together, have returned home to a wretched little room in an alehouse, and there, without having a morsel for my supper, been obliged to buck up my only shift in the wash-hand bason, and to get a part of twenty lengths by heart against the next night of performance.

Here "buck up" seems to mean "launder."

From "Rhapsodies, in a Voyage to Nootka Sound" (London, 1797):

Sometimes the company wou'd jeer, / And ask me—how I felt it here? / Meaning my heart—"Ah, will it break? / Does the restless flutterer ache?— / Alas! he minds not what we say!— / He's surely in a desp'rate way! ? Go to the woods, poor wretch! and there / Hide, 'midst their shades, thy love-sick care! / Go to the deepest streams and drown / The sorrows that thus weigh the down!— / Yet, courage, lad! be not afraid!— / Buck up, and kiss the willing maid!"— / Sophia who, as well as I, / Disliked their ill-timed raillery, / Replied with heat—"I never saw / Your fellers, fags, in foolish jaw!— / The woods, and streams, and shades, and stuff!— / I'm sure the young man's well enough: / This blessed night you have not heard / From out his gills a single word."

The sense here seems to be the courthip-related meaning (or complex of meanings) discussed elsewhere in this answer.

From a glossary in Robert Anderson, Ballads in the Cumberland dialect, chiefly by R. Anderson, (1808):

Buck up, to subscribe

This meaning could very well be an antecedent of the "pay up" meaning that appears in texts from the 1820s and 1830s.

From "A New Medley," in W. Oxbury, The Theatrical Banquet; or, The Actor's Budget, volume 2 (1809):

Four-and twenty-washerwomen all on a row!

Four-and twenty-washerwomen all on a row!

There was bucking up to the elbows in sudds—Ah, goody, nobody labours so hard as you and I—another glass of gin, if you please—with more warm water, a bit more soap, and help me to wring this pair of sheets, while the rest of the world are in the majority; minority and majority, majority and minority, this side and that side, right side nd wrong side, all sides and every side; sometimes on no sode at all—with prittle, prattle, tittle tattle—

If not for the 1767 example, I would have been nonplussed by this instance. But it seems to invoke the same washing-relate meaning that the example from forty-two years earlier did. It is possible that this meaning evolved into a sense such as "prepare for future wearing" and thus was the ancestor a progenitor of some of the courtship-related instances of "buck up." Such a connection is neither obvious nor well defined in the historical record, however.


Conclusions

The verb phrase "buck up" has three distinct meanings, all three of them probably originating in England. The earliest sense of the phrase appears in an article form 1767 and a comic song from 1809. It evidently meant to launder, hand-wash, or something similar. It is by no means clear that this meaning is a forebear of the other two meanings.

The second meaning debuts (in my search results) in a glossary of Cumberland regionalisms from 1808, where it is assigned the definition "to subscribe." This might represent another etymological dead end, but I think it is reasonably likely that this sense of "buck up" led to the subsequent sense of the verb phrase as "to pay up or front money for." That sense of the phrase appears in both the U.S. and Britain in examples from 1824, 1833, 1835, 1836, and 1839.

The third meaning shows up in 1797 and reappears at least seven unique times during the 1830s. It is related to courtship and can mean to dress up appropriately for courtship, to behave in a manner appropriate for wooing someone, or (in its earliest occurrence) perhaps nothing more than to dare to approach the object of one's admiration.

Jonathon Green, Chambers Slang Dictionary (2008) identifies three meanings of "buck up" from the mid-nineteenth century:

buck up v. {early-mid-19C} to dress oneself up.

buck up v. {orig. Winchester Coll. jargon; ult. SE buck} 1 {mid-19C+} to encourage, to cheer someone up. 2 {mid-19C+} to cheer (oneself) up. 3 {mid-19C+} to improve.

buck up to {19C} (US) 1 to make advances, to court. 2 to defy, to rebel against, to stand up to

Green's treatment is interesting in that he splits what I've been calling the courtship-related complex of meanings into a dress-up meaning (presumably from Britain) and a courtship meaning (with an explicitly U.S. origin). But if English comic songs were urging young men in 1797 to "Buck up and kiss the willing maid," I don't see the courtship meaning as being very far afield from that. Indeed, the English writer C.A. Somerset provides the earliest instance of "buck up to" that I could find—from 1828—and the context is clearly one of a character wooing a woman he considers a fallen angel: "I'll buck up to her, a bit."

Not unexpectedly, Green doesn't report the old (and odd) laundering sense of "buck up" from the late eighteenth century. I was surprised, however, that he didn't mention the "pay up" sense of "buck up" that emerged by 1824 and was in use on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean during the 1830s.

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    In Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff hides in the buck-basket (a hamper in which dirty linen was collected for washing). – Kate Bunting Dec 1 '20 at 9:11
  • @Kate Bunting: Thank you for pointing out this very early related instance of buck. It implies that the laundering sense of "buck up" derives from "bucket" (as in "wash bucket") rather than from "male deer" or some other sense of buck. – Sven Yargs Dec 1 '20 at 16:46
  • Apparently not, although the word may be related. bartleby.com/81/2599.html – Kate Bunting Dec 2 '20 at 16:42
  • @KateBunting: Joseph Wright, The English Dialect Dictionary (1898) traces the origin of buck in the laundering sense to a term meaning "Lye made from cow-dung." Wright doesn't note any obvious etymological connection to bucket. Related compounds include buck-basket, buck-tub, and buck-wash. – Sven Yargs Dec 2 '20 at 18:13
  • For to subscribe I am reasonably sure, without further ado, that we have to compare booking, to book (Ger. buchen). For the dress-up cp. Ger. bügeln (to iron (clothes)) though I don't see how; likewise see borgen "to borrow, lend" for money, cp. cough up. to pony up / buck up isn't even mentioned in the conclusion, why? The courtship sense may come from this, or lead thereto, and should pertain to stags indeed if it compare distantly to Ger. bockig (be an ass, stubborn and miserable, cp. *ster- "strong", Ger. stur "stubborn", versus Stier "taurus", uncertain). YMMV – vectory Dec 8 '20 at 18:27
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I would have linked to this, as a comment, but it requires either a library card from the UK or a subscription, so I am adding to the research of the question by posting it here :

Oxford English Dictionary :

2. to buck up. Thesaurus » Categories »

a. intransitive. To cheer up, be encouraged. Also transitive in causal sense.

1844 Graham's Mag. Jan. 38 ‘I don't see the trouble,’ said Mrs Fitzgig, ‘why can't a man buck up?’

1889 A. Barrère & C. G. Leland Dict. Slang I. (at cited word) (Winchester College)..to ‘buck up’ is to be glad.

1890 J. S. Farmer Slang Buck up,..(Winchester College), to be glad; pleased... The usual expression is ‘Oh buck up’, a phrase which at Westminster School would have a very different meaning, namely, ‘exert yourself’.

1894 Punch 27 Oct. 193/1 Buck up, mate; you've no call to be yaller, nor a perminent bloo, heither!

1901 W. H. Lawson et al. Winchester Coll. Notions 14 Buck up, Hurrah! The original meaning, which is still used. Hence later:—Cheer up, hurry up.

1906 B. von Hutten What became of Pam ii. ix Don't spoil it all by being weepy... Come, buck up, like a dear, and wish me joy.

1909 H. G. Wells Tono-Bungay (U.K. ed.) ii. ii. §1 Never saw her so larky. This has bucked her up something wonderful.

1910 W. J. Locke Simon the Jester xviii Now and again one does help a lame dog over a stile which bucks one up, you know.

1926 W. R. Inge Lay Thoughts 233 I asked the medical members..in particular whether it was impossible that microbic diseases..might be benefited by ‘bucking up’ the patient.

1966 ‘J. Hackston’ Father clears Out 37 As if to buck us up after our recent loss, he promised us poultry on the table.

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    Thank you for your support. I appreciate the time you took to quote from a source I do not have access to. – Cascabel Nov 30 '20 at 19:55
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Apparently a UK expression originally:

Buck up

[orig. Winchester Coll. jargon; ult. SE buck]

to cheer (oneself) up.

  • 1844 [UK] Graham’s Mag. Jan. 38: ‘I don’t see the trouble,’ said Mrs Fitzgig, ‘why can’t a man buck up?’ [OED].
  • 1895 [UK] E. Pugh Street in Suburbia n.p.: Buckin’ up fer theirselves when times is bad.
  • 1905 [UK] A. Binstead Mop Fair 69: Twee give Twee-est deevie ickle dinnie, and Twee-est buck up.

to encourage, to cheer someone up.

  • 1897 [UK] W.S. Maugham Liza of Lambeth (1966) 120: ’Ave a little drop more, Liza [...] it do buck yer up.
  • 1901 [UK] E.W. Hornung Black Mask (1992) 272: Feel equal to a cigarette? It will buck you up, Bunny.

(GDoS)

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