As OUP lexicographers monitor the linguistic radar for new words and meanings, sometimes we find a usage that appears novel but has actually been kicking around for quite a while. Consider the verb big-up, meaning ‘to praise or promote; to raise the profile of.’ Three recent quotes from American media sources give you a sense of how it’s being used these days. Here’s the actress Jaime Pressly critiquing the show “Ugly Betty”: “They’re purposefully big-upping the ugly fat girl to make everybody feel great, but it also glamorizes the fact that people are getting plastic surgery because they can.” The music blog Idolator had this to say about an “American Idol” contestant: “This is actually the second time that Hennessy has been big-upped by the Idol powers that be,” adding, “is big-upping this girl really the best strategy to boost ratings?” And finally a profile of Staten Island’s Budos Band notes: “Legit blogs like Brooklyn Vegan and online publications like Pitchfork and RollingStone.com have also big-upped the band.” This might be the verb of the moment in hip, pop-culture-savvy varieties of American English, but it already has a long history in Caribbean and British English.
Big-up (with or without the hyphen) has a number of intertwining uses as a noun, adjective, verb, and interjection, all derived from English dialects spoken in Caribbean locales like Jamaica and the Bahamas. As early as 1982, lexicographers John Holm and Alison Shilling were documenting some of these uses for their Dictionary of Bahamian English. One early sense of the verb in Bahamian English is ‘to swell up, to become pregnant.’ Richard Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage adds another usage, attested in Barbados: as an adjective meaning ‘highly placed, socially important’ (as in “a big-up soldier”), or as a related noun meaning ‘an important person, someone in authority’ — a bit like higher-up in American English.
But it was Jamaican usage of big-up that ultimately represented the most significant Caribbean contribution, first influencing English in the UK and then in the US. Among Jamaican musicians in the reggae and dancehall traditions, big up developed as a kind of greeting of respect, often made in a live performance: “Big up all massive and crew!” The interjection was also made into a noun to indicate an expression of respect or recognition made to another, much like shout-outs or props in American hiphop usage. And alongside the interjection and the noun, the verb big-up came to be used by the early 1990s to mean ‘give a big-up to.’
The verb big-up, along with the other forms, was quickly popularized by performers of Jamaican background, particularly in Britain. In Noises in the Blood, Carolyn Cooper writes of the British-based DJ Macka B dispensing big-ups at a 1991 reggae concert: “I’m big-up Jamaica, big-up Rastaman.” Similarly, in the 1992 song “Sweet Jamaica” (later appearing on the soundtrack of the movie Cool Runnings) the reggae singer Tony Rebel exhorted, “Help me big up Jamaica …We love the vibes, the food, and the culture.” In British usage the verb could be found in the mainstream media by the late ’90s, as in a Guardian article from 1999 describing how the owner of the Italian airline Debonair “does radio adverts bigging up his own airline.” Until recently, however, many Americans might have only been exposed to big-up through “Da Ali G Show” (first broadcast in the States on HBO in 2003), in which Sacha Baron Cohen’s persona of Ali G used the expression as part of his “Jafaican” patter.
The three quotations at the top of the column demonstrate how big-up is finally settling into the American lexicon, but they also indicate another way that usage is solidifying. Note that Jaime Pressly said that “Ugly Betty” was “big-upping the ugly fat girl,” not that the show was “bigging up the ugly fat girl” (or “bigging the ugly fat girl up“). So we find that big-up is being treated as a single entity that can be inflected with verb endings, rather than as the verb big plus the particle up. This also helps explain why the hyphenated form is appearing so commonly in print. It’s a bit unusual to find a so-called “phrasal verb” (also known as a “verb-particle construction”) undergoing this type of reanalysis, but one similar case is voice over meaning ‘to supply unseen narration to a broadcast.’ A film can be voiced over or it can be voice-overed, depending on whether voice over is treated as one entity or two. Of course, the existence of the noun voice-over helps with the single-entity reading, just as the noun big-up encourages inflected forms like big-upping.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here