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TWTS: We'll be "up and at 'em," once you tell us who 'em are

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When you hear someone say “up and at ‘em,” you probably know what to do, even if you don’t know who “’em” refers to.

Before reading this, some of you may have even thought the saying was “up and Adam” or “up and atom.” Regardless, you still probably knew what was expected when you heard this phrase.

“Up and at ‘em” has two very similar meanings. One is to wake up or get out of bed. The other is to get active or get busy or get going.

In many cases, this phrase is used as an interjection that functions as an imperative – that’s when someone says “up and at ‘em” to get you out of bed or to get you moving. However, you can also find examples of it being used adjectively, as in: “I go to bed early so I can be up and at ‘em before the sun comes up.”

The earliest known use of this phrase seems to be in 1815, during the Battle of Waterloo. Accounts of the battle describe the Duke of Wellington using it to rally his troops, as in this example from A Short Detail of the Battle of Waterloo:

“‘Up, Guards, and at them,’ cried the Duke of Wellington, who was then with a brigade of the Guards. In an instant they sprung up, and, assuming the offensive, rushed upon the attacking columns with the bayonet.”

The Duke of Wellington later denied ever using the phrase, but it still became popular, particularly in the context of sports and games.

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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.
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