Margaret Marks reports on an odd phrase used by German Federal Minister Edelgard Bulmahn: “Brain up! Deutschland sucht seine Spitzenuniversitäten,” or as Margaret renders it ‘[Incomprehensible English embellishment] German is looking for its top universities.’ A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But she says there is a UK idiom brain up (transitive), ‘to make more intellectually demanding or sophisticated,’ with which I was unfamiliar. Guess I’ll have to brain myself up.


  1. How handy!

  2. It appears to have been coined as a deliberate opposite of “dumb down”. For instance, this 2002 Guardian piece contains the quote: Mr Saumarez Smith, a former academic, believes the answer is not to dumb down, “as the Department for Culture Media and Sport would sometimes seem to like us to do”, but to “brain up”. I don’t know how old it is.

  3. But why not “smarten up,” or (if you’re determined to coin something) the parallel phrase “smart up”? Brain up is butt-ugly.

  4. I do believe Lucretius let us know that his preferred position was “breasts down, buttocks up” – maybe somebody could save the phrase by using it in some similar combination. “Brain up, pudenda wrapped in seven veils” or such like. For other life circumstances.

  5. Too bad they didn’t “Brain Up” intelligence reports instead of “Sexing them up”… Oh, I forgot it is now official that they didn’t “sex up” anything – they just embellished

  6. “Brain up” just makes me wanna “gut down,” head out, butt in, and belly up to the bar for another pint. It’s hands down the worst of these collocations.

  7. I must add that I didn’t know that Collins use of ‘brain up’ either. I had ‘bone up on something’ in the back of my head, and I just checked to see.
    I got the impression there is going to be a ‘Brain up’ campaign in the coming months. I wonder if they’ll back down if they read all the criticism (or should that be ‘brain down’?)

  8. Hmm, “smarten up” makes me think of putting on proper dinner attire. “Brain up” is hilarious, though, and despite an average native German-speaking person’s fluency in English, their repeated weakness for stupid English (or made-up English) terms to liven up German makes for a bit of fun. “Hallo Leute, und wilkommen zu unser’ Supervetttayshurtkontestwettbewerb. Und jetzt, die Fotos!”

  9. Is “brain up” really worse English than the Boston Red Sox slogan of the past season?

  10. It’s not necessarily worse English, but to my mind it sounds worse. On the other hand, I am not a Red Sox fan. I can see where a Red Swx fan with an ear for the English language might be particularly distressed that his team had descended to that level.

  11. I think I like ‘brain up’, although that might change if I ever actually heard it.
    I’d relate it to ‘man up’ or ‘brawn up’ I think.
    It seems like a pretty breezy bit of slang, but it also contains the idea that applying intelligence to a problem is an actual exertion, which I like.

  12. dungbeattle says

    Brain up, or or brain out, may lead to a brain storm then one may use a some trepanning to release the political pressure, before some brain softening occurs.

  13. Isn’t “getting brained” getting slammed in the noggin by a saucepan or some such blunt device? I seem to recall something vaguely Wodehousian…
    In any case, even if a little learning is a dangerous thing, it’s got nothing on a lot of learning. *That* is what terrifies me.

  14. I wonder how, as a German, it feels to be barked at in a foreign language by your own bloody government? And badly, at that!

  15. Nikolaus Urban says

    As a German I am definitely not amused by this appallingly bad use of language.
    The phrase “brain up”, though, seems to be current in the pages of the Guardian (cf Larry Elliot on January 14, 2004). Nevertheless Ms Bulmahn committed a blunder because in Germany not even well-known professors of English know the phrase, e.g. Prof.Dr.Mindt in a letter to the editors of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on January 20, 2004.
    Germany is certain to go down the drain, if we have such professors and ministers of education who communicate in a language which they do not know well.

Speak Your Mind