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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

up front

(1980’s | “initial” (adj.), “at the outset,” “in advance” OR “blunt,” “candid,” “direct,” “open”)

Hard as it is to believe, fifty or even forty years ago this phrase was used almost exclusively to mean “in the front,” “towards the front,” or “in the foreground.” Somewhere around 1970, two distinguishable meanings started to show up in print. By the end of the 1970’s, both had entered the lexicon. By the end of the century, both were commonplace. The financial sense seems to have edged into the language first, but neither has obvious precedence. Each usage has its sphere — one associated with money matters, the other broader — and they are connected, although they point in different directions.

“Money up front.” It’s a down payment, or a deposit: the money you put up to prove you’re serious and give the seller confidence you can complete the deal. “Earnest money,” they used to call it. I found a few scattered instances of this usage in the 1960’s on Google Books — the earliest was in Billboard, May 20, 1957. How it got to mean that I’m not sure. There is no obvious connection with World War II chronicler and cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s highly successful book of the same title, which made the phrase widely known and perhaps ripe for appropriation. From the beginning, the phrase was used in different kinds of writing — legal, business, entertainment. Though it still is often in used in money contexts, its range has grown.

Somewhere in there, “pay up front” probably did mutate into “say up front,” and that’s a likely ancestor to our other sense: frank, forthright, without concealment. But at first, I think, it hewed more closely to the spirit of “let’s get this straight before we go any further,” the emphasis being on speaking up early more than on speaking openly. In one way it bears the same message as “pay up front”: You can tell I’m serious about this transaction because I’m bringing this up at the beginning. It’s not hard to suppose an evolution from “I’m telling you this first” to “I’m being completely open about this.” The latter usage started to show up in the 1970’s, but it has become more common recently. Even now, the phrase usually carries at least a hint of the older sense, and of course the two things often go together anyway. I remember fondly New York’s surprise governor, David Paterson. When he took office, he admitted publicly to past drug use and infidelity in an effort (which worked) to keep them from being used against him later. There’s an example of speaking up at the beginning of the process and being candid rolled neatly into one.

“Up front” makes me think of “out front,” in the Ken Kesey sense of the term. When Kesey and the Merry Pranksters set off on their epic 1964 journey, he set the tone: “All of us are beginning to do our thing, and we’re going to keep doing it right out front and nobody is going to have anything to get pissed off about.” “Out front” was an important phrase for Kesey, and it meant several things: “open(ly),” “unconstrained(ly),” “spontaneous(ly),” “fearless(ly),” etc. There’s a close resemblance between the idea of acting freely and openly and the idea of being clear about what you’re looking for. If not the origin of this usage, I’ll bet “out front” was a tributary. Doesn’t “up front” just sound like a hippie expression?

It’s hard to assign a standard spelling: two words or one? The hyphenated spelling still turns up, but not very often. The one-word rendering will probably take over, but you still see it written as two words. One of the original uses of “upfront,” after all, was to save writers a little space: “upfront controls” could replace “controls in the front.” It’s no big deal for a hyphenated expression to become a single word, especially when it’s used as an attributive adjective. “Upfront” (normally one word) has a specialized meaning in the television industry, where “upfront market” refers to television advertising sold before the beginning of the season (which gives advertisers more flexibility and a chance at better slots for their commercials). This usage also became standard in the 1980’s, although the phrase has not spread outside the biz.


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