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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

raise your game

(1980’s | athletese | “give 110 percent,” “turn it up a notch,” “excel”)

Any possessive pronoun will do. The definite article would definitely imply something different, closer to “raise the bar.” An early elaboration was “raise the level of your game,” and in either form it seemed to emerge most readily from the mouths of soccer and tennis players. LexisNexis finds no instances before 1980, but I would expect there to be a few years’ lag for a phrase like this one. By the end of the decade it was available in any sport, but not beyond sports; by the end of the century, that was still largely true, and today it remains largely but not exclusively the property of athletes. (It seems to have become much more prominent in Great Britain than in the U.S. in the intervening thirty years.) But it has trickled into wider use, through arts writing, which is odd considering that artists don’t usually adopt athletic novelties, and now much more often among politicians, which is less surprising. When non-athletes use the phrase, it brings with it a hint of, if not competitive instinct, the idea of a particular skill that you polish in response to an external stimulus, which might come from a competitor, colleague, or coach.

Finally, in the last ten years, “raise one’s game” has become popular among candidates and elected officials; it puzzles me that it took so long, both because it is an athlete’s expression and because politicians are forever claiming they will do better at the same time they claim that their performance to date could not have been improved on. When athletes talk about raising their game, it’s fairly specific: execute a strategy, concentrate harder, or hone a particular skill. When a politician does, it means everything and nothing — an unbacked promise to improve. My sense is that politicians use it more often of others than themselves; they denigrate other politicians by suggesting that they need to raise their game rather than take responsibility for raising their own. Even so, the phrase has an optimistic sound, conjuring a picture of the game-raiser spurred to greater heights, overcoming obstacles to provide ever better service to an adoring public (or the opposite, when used by an opponent). It just seems like such a useful phrase that it should have caught on in politics faster than it did.

There are a number of related expressions: “top of your game,” “elevate your game”; now “up your game” is a hip substitute for “raise your game.” In this context, “game” is a rough synonym for “performance” with a dash of will to win. The priority appears to go to “top of your game,” which seems to be a bit older than the others. The apparent distinction between being “on top of your game,” which might mean managing your abilities exceptionally well, and “at the top of your game,” meaning playing at your absolute peak, rarely exists in practice; it means “doing your best” no matter which preposition is in play. “Elevate your game” came along a few years later and seems to be an uncomplicated synonym replacement. “Up your game” became visible after 2000, drawing on the already familiar use of “up” as a verb (“up the ante”). It has nothing to do with “the game is up,” as a detective would say to a criminal, meaning he has been found out and it’s all over.

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