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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: heroism

step up

(1990’s | athletese | “rise to the occasion,” “step in,” “do your part,” “take a stand”)

I’ll tell you what’s up: “Step up” used to be transitive. Now it has a well-established intransitive use. That sort of thing happens now and then, but I think not very many people notice. We grumpy grammarians, on the other hand . . .

It was still transitive most of the time in 1990, but the intransitive had emerged, primarily among athletes. Other verbs, including “ramp up” and “ratchet up,” have made space for “step up” to meander into another meaning. “Step up” meant “increase” or “augment,” also sometimes “increase the pace of.” These senses have not disappeared, but they have been joined by “step up” shorn of all its appendages, used to mean take charge of handling a problem or situation (it crops up a lot in crunch time). When it was transitive, even if it didn’t have an object, it was followed by a prepositional phrase, notably “to the plate.” That expression is likely the progenitor of today’s use, which may be followed by an infinitive, as in “step up to make sure the job is done,” but more often closes a clause or sentence.

As so much athletes’ vocabulary does, this has spread to politicians and businessmen. “Who will step up?” has a ring to it, it’s true, although “step up” also sounds like a kind of baby dog. To me it evokes a medal-winning Olympic athlete mounting the podium, or the older expression “step forward” (think of a line of soldiers, a few of whom have stood forth to volunteer for a dangerous assignment). Stepping up emphasizes crucial duty more than unpleasant duty, but the latter implication can definitely creep in. I’ve covered a couple other locutions like it — “designated driver,” “real MVP,” “take one for the team” — that express a blend of solidarity and heroism that may be found in the humblest office or in the seventh game of the World Series. I haven’t covered “stand-up guy” (not “step-up guy”) but that’s part of the group, too.

It’s not easy to pin down precise opposites. (“Step down” is not one of them, although you might step down after failing to step up.) The most direct, I think, are “flop” or “fall down on the job” — not nearly so pithy — and a less closely linked but still related antonym is “stand down,” which refers to disengagement, which may in turn result from failure. You can try to go above and beyond and fall short, or you can simply back away from the problem and leave it to others; either would constitute a failure to step up. When you use the past tense, you’re implying pretty strongly that the intervention was successful; it isn’t nearly so common to say “so-and-so stepped up” when he gave it his best shot but didn’t pull it off. (“He gave it his best shot” wouldn’t make a bad epitaph, would it? Some rich ambiguities there.)

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