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The term "level up" is a current political buzz-phrase. The Tories have spoken much of how they are going to do this to deprived areas of the UK, and today it came out they're even renaming a department of the government 'Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities' (formerly housing and local government).

Prior to this intrusion into politics, this is a term that I only ever encountered in video games. It always struck me very much as a word stolen back into English from Japanese-English.  Interestingly, however, checking a history of the term, I do see that it has a history going back quite some way.

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=%22level+up%22&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2C%22%20level%20up%20%22%3B%2Cc0#t1%3B%2C%22%20level%20up%20%22%3B%2Cc0
Or try this one.

Does anyone have any insight into the actual history of the term and how it was originally used?

Was it at all similar to its current video-game influenced usage?

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    Usage in role playing games (in particular, Dungeons and Dragons) likely predates the usage in video games. Are the uses located by the Google tool the same? E.g., "His berth was one level up from mine" will match the query but is a different usage. (I don't have a sense of the validity of that example. The point is that there are other conceivable ways the words "level up" can appear but which have a different meaning.) Sep 20, 2021 at 15:36
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    This is probably 'off topic', in the sense that it is opinion-based. The question is really about history/politics as opposed to English language usage. Some dictionaries, such as Cambridge [dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/…, have adopted the neologism, while others, like Collins, have not (yet). The usage is a return to an argument from the 60's in which the vocabulary was about equality of outcome (left wing) versus equality of opportunity (right wing). What is clear is that whether or not it will fade out, it is in widespread current use.
    – Tuffy
    Sep 20, 2021 at 15:37
  • Its not a question about politics no, though thats where the term is being heard lately. Its a strange phrase when you really think about it and its unusual to see it coming into use. Sep 22, 2021 at 8:17

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Levelling up is based on the idea that you can achieve equality in two ways: either by making the rich worse off or the poor better off. Levelling down is where you take money away from the rich, levelling up is where you try and raise the status of the poor so everybody is on the same level (of income, opportunity, health, etc).

Politically it is a valuable idea because it indicates you're making some people better off, rather than making some people worse off. Politicians don't want to be seen to take money away from people.

According to the think-tank UK In A Changing Europe the first prominent use was in the 1860s in British debates over inequality in Ireland. They also quote a Labour MP in the 1940s as asking about different levels of benefits between London and the rest of Britain:

Cannot the anomaly be removed by levelling up the rates paid to the wives of serving men for the whole country to that paid in the London postal district?

In the 1990s Labour minister David Blunkett spoke of "levelling up, not levelling down".

It is unconnected to levelling up in video games, which has no sense of equality or getting everyone to the same level. In politics, part of the meaning is the sense of "level" meaning horizontal, although both the political and video game meanings also relate to "level" as the position on a scale: in politics you are getting everyone to the same position, reducing horizontal differences and achieving a flatter outcome.

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    "To level up - to bring what is lower to an equality with what is higher. First used by Lord Mayo in 1869. The older officials with smaller salaries applied to have them levelled up to the salaries of the new-comers. Dictionary of Idiomatic Phrases (1891)
    – DjinTonic
    Sep 20, 2021 at 16:34
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    I suspect that term has multiple practical origins most of them possibly in building and landscape gardening (which might make its origins 17th or 18th century). If you set out to create a level area such as a lawn or, particularly, a terrace you can do that either by digging out the higher part of the site or by building up the lower. If you dig out the higher you are "levelling down", if you build up the lower you are "levelling up". Think of the passage in Handel's Messiah "every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill laid low".
    – BoldBen
    Sep 20, 2021 at 17:17
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    The term leveller goes back to English politics of the 17th century. Sep 20, 2021 at 19:38
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I suspect that leveling up, in the sense that it's usually used, i.e. making everything better, was taken by video game makers from earlier pen and paper table top role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.

The levelling up/leveling down is probably not a reference to landscape gardening, but more likely either a misunderstanding of what leveling up means in context or, given that where talking about David Blunkett, possibly a clever subversion of language (although, given that his expertise was in industrial relations and politics, he might have been talking about wages).

Now there may well be earlier uses of 'leveling up', with broadly similar meanings, but the current popularity and use of the phrase almost certainly stems from game design (where your Level is a measure of your ability) rather than a throwback to an earlier reference or a demonstration of historical trivia on the part of Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson the designers of Dungeons & Dragons): just because there are earlier examples does not mean there's an unbroken line of succession if you are looking for the true origin.

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