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.


  1. Funny — one of the Englishmen at Crooked Timber used “on the up-and-up” to mean “increasing” recently — I posted to ask whether that was the meaning of it in Britain, and he said no, he had just been tired when writing and had meant to say “on the rise”.

  2. Another odd thing is that the expression isn’t even listed in the Cassell Concise Dictionary, my usual guide to contemporary UK usage.

  3. I read the commentary by Nunberg yesterday. I was quite surprised, since I am one of those who only use “on the up and up” to mean “on the level,” legit, not crooked, dishonest or illegal. I had never seen it mean “on the increase.” It reminded me of the debate over the word “Luddite.” For some it was a perfectly ordinary word, yet others felt it to be extremely obscure. Can we live side by side with others, thinking we speak the same language, but yet be separated by invisible lines of demarcation?

  4. Hah! I didn’t know there was such a phrase, even, as “up-and-up”.
    I suppose that if I come here I have to watch my language – I mean, I don’t use dirty language, but my grammar isn’t that great.
    (I don’t even know if saying “grammar is great” is good English!)

  5. Summer, this is one place you don’t have to worry about your language. Nobody’s going to tell you “that’s bad English!”… though you might get asked where you’re from, because linguistic types are always curious about dialects. Languagehat believes that English belongs to its speakers, not its teachers!

  6. Another datapoint: I’ve always used it in the “improving” sense. Didn’t know it had another meaning.
    I have a feeling that this is the most dominant usage in Australia. If you restrict Google to only show Australian sites, I think you can get a sense of that.

  7. Excellent. Any other regions reporting in?

  8. “Up and Up”, I did think it was another way of saying he was on his “uppers” ye know no soles on his shoes(last legs), out of the ever ready.
    Oh well ! yer live an’ learn.

  9. I’d concur with John Hardy – I think that the dominant usage in Australia has the sense of ‘on the rise’. It is also the kind of expression I’d expect to hear from my grandmother – ‘I’ve not been well but I’m on the up and up’ …

  10. I know it as ‘increasing’ (British)

  11. Another American who’s never heard it the other way, here. Though it rings with a grin in my ear. Can’t imagine anyone nowadays using it, or “on the level”, as part of their regular vocabulary.

  12. I also concur with John Hardy about the Australian usage; I’ve only ever understood ‘on the up-and-up’ to mean ‘getting better’, ‘on the improve’.

  13. Pacific NW of the US, here — I’ve never (knowingly) heard “up-and-up” in the “increasing” or Australian sense. I use it in my daily speech (interestingly, tho, as I query my mind, I can only imagine using it in a question — “is that really on the up and up?” — and not in a statement.)

  14. Southern England here, and I would only have understood it in the “increasing” sense. But it’s not really in my active vocabulary. The other sense would be “on the level”, which is a much more common phrase, and something I might actually use spontaneously. I can’t imagine “on the up and up” being used outside of a journalistic context.

  15. From the depth of street markets, in out of the way spot not marked in the AA guide, You see a character { a straight and narrow type}, offering that has to be , the most fantastic bargain, too good to miss[48″ flat hdtv for 30 bob] You would Question Our Upright citizen “on the up and up me old china” Ans your guess? Of course now one has Ebay?

  16. take a peek-
    My version is attributed to America. Therefore I must have been brain washed [too much lead in the gas{100 octane}] by those Damn Yankee Pilots in their mustangs./[Pee47]

  17. From dungbeatle’s link:
    be on the up and up
    if someone or something is on the up and up they are becoming more and more successful
    Since the recession ended, our business has been on the up and up.
    (American, informal) if a person or an activity is on the up and up, they are honest
    You can trust Mick – he’s on the up and up.
    (from Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms)
    And I’m going to add that Cambridge search page to my sidebar; many thanks!

  18. Funny – when I try to imagine hearing someone say on the up and up (in any sense), what appears is always a character from Lovejoy (semi-comic British tv series about an antiques trader) – and he means it in the sense here labelled as American.

  19. “on the Up and Up ” I found a reference in a Latin Primer “Intensive Course” p15. In Barnes and Noble [today] for the an example of an Idiom. Sorry! I did not record clearly the all the relevant data , my scratchings were bedunged . Naturally no further explanation on what the idiom stood for , I guess! look up Martial? or maybe Catullus?

Speak Your Mind