What does that expression mean to you? Until a minute ago, I wouldn’t have thought there was any doubt about it: Merriam-Webster’s says “up-and-up an honest or respectable course—used in the phrase on the up-and-up,” and that’s how I’ve always heard it used. But now, thanks to Geoff Nunberg (via jim), I find that a great many people think it means ‘on the increase,’ or ‘improving,’ as in “Hong Kong’s trade is on the up and up.” Nunberg was as suprised as I am, and he gives this striking example:
Out of curiosity, I sent a question about the item to a discussion group that’s peopled by dialectologists and other devotees of word-lore. I had a note back from someone in Berkeley who told me that he was surprised to hear that “on the up and up” could be used to mean “on the increase.” But when he asked his wife about it, she said that for her that was the only thing it could mean —she never knew it could mean “on the level.” And what made it odder still was that they’ve been married for more than twenty years and both grew up in Southern California.
I had this image of the two of them sitting at the breakfast table. He asks “Is your brother’s new business on the up-and-up?” and she says, “No, but he’s making do.” And they go on like that with neither of them ever realizing that they’re talking at cross-purposes. Deborah Tannen, call your office.
He gives further examples of expressions whose “disparate meanings can live side-by-side without anybody seeming to notice”; as always, he’s worth reading in full.