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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

suck it up

(1990’s | athletese | “bear down,” “rise above it,” “tough it out,” “bite the bullet”)

In its modern sense, this phrase first appeared in print during the 1970’s, says Google Books, nearly always in an athletic context. It occurred much more frequently in a literal or lightly figurative sense (“absorb” or “ingest voraciously”) before 1990. The phrase in our sense turns up rarely before the late 1980’s in LexisNexis, nearly invariably in sports journalism, with only sporadic use elsewhere.

Now what exactly does it mean? It’s gotten more complicated since 1990. The closest I can come to a lowest common denominator is something like “put everything else aside and expend maximum effort in a single direction.” When it was first used among athletes, it often inhabited a very particular context: that of an injured player staying in the game. Unless you were really racked up, you were expected to keep going and help the team win. (That was back when professional athletes came a lot cheaper; now that even journeymen can cost over a million a year, management routinely insists that players make extended recoveries from apparently minor injuries, and physicians exercise supreme authority.) So a player might say, “Yeah, it was tough running on a sprained ankle, but I knew I had to suck it up and keep playing.” In everyday English, the expression is still normally associated with some kind of adversity. In on-line dictionaries, the emphasis falls on shouldering a difficult task or enduring hardship without complaining, which is probably what people mean most of the time when they tell you to suck it up.

But I’m not even sure adversity is necessary. The earliest attribution I found (1969) came from Darrell Royal, football coach at the University of Texas (this may be one of those terms, like “gut check,” that we owe to football coaches): “You can’t always use logic or reason. . . . It was a hunch. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and pick a number.” There’s a sort of adversity here, I guess, a situation where you have to do something in order to win, and the best course isn’t clear. But he appears to mean simply “stop thinking about everything else and concentrate on what you have to do right now.” An example with a different slant from a small-business owner, talking about the federal health care law (CNN Wire, July 2, 2012): “As a business owner, I can make decisions based on knowing what I’m dealing with — good or bad. I can suck it up and map out my pricing strategy . . . Being in limbo is the worst thing to be in.” Maybe I’m making too much of this, but isn’t that “good or bad” telling? Even when conditions are favorable, you can still “suck it up” and concentrate on doing the next thing.

And the punch line: What does any of this have to do with sucking, in any sense? I’m darned if I know. Does it mean holding in natural reactions to suffering so you can transcend them? Does it mean drawing all the distractions together and putting them out of reach (like a vacuum cleaner?) so you can do what needs to be done? Or perhaps, as this language forum suggests, it’s just a colorful way to say “take a deep breath” (and by implication, face the next challenge). But isn’t “suck in” a deep breath more idiomatic than “suck up”? Does it have anything at all to do with “suck up” (flatter obsequiously) or “suck” (stink)? I’d love to come up with a definitive origin for this expression, but even a plausible one would do.

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