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TWTS: Search up your questions online or just ask a linguist

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In the age of the internet, if you don’t know the answer to something, you can just search it up online — even if your question is about the verb “search up.”

Or you can just ask Professor Anne Curzan.

That’s exactly what one student decided to during a lecture Curzan was giving on language authority and who gets to decide what’s right and wrong. This included a discussion on language change, which often causes people to say something isn’t right just because it’s new.

As students were giving Curzan examples, one asked her what she thought about the phrase “search it up” for looking up things online. Curzan hadn’t been tracking this phrase, so the student sent her some debates from Quora and Reddit about whether “search it up” is okay to say.

Interestingly, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have already been tracking “search it up” and define it as “to look for information about something by using an internet search engine or similar function.” The first example they give is from a 2002 Usenet newsgroup post: “So, I searched it up on this mailing list and Google.”

When it comes to the verb “search up,” sans “it,” the OED has examples dating back to the 16th century. Back then, it meant “to make a thorough or diligent investigation into something,” as in this example from 1780: “He searched up all the Hebrew copies he was able [to find] and burnt them.”

In the 1500s, there was another sense of “search up” that meant something was uncovered in the process of searching, as in this example from 1619: “I shall not need, I hope, in so evident a truth to search up more scriptures to prove it.”

Now that you’re familiar with “search it up,” do you think it’s synonymous with “look it up?” For example, if someone asked you for a phone number that you don’t have, could you tell them to “search it up?” To hear our thoughts on this, listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.