Welcome to this series of talks about new English words by Jim Pettiward. This week, he explains the origin, meaning and use of the expression 'big up'. Click below to listen:
Big up – big up, two words. As a phrasal verb - to big somebody or something up - ‘big up the London crew’. It can also be used as a noun ‘a big-up’ as in ‘a big-up to all my people’. It’s an expression of respect or recognition, an acknowledgement of the value of another person or group.
It’s one of many expressions that have come into English from the Caribbean, often from Jamaica, and it was the influence of Jamaican music and culture which made the word popular in the UK. It was, and still is, used by reggae music artists to name-check other singers, sound systems and fans and has also crossed over into rap and hip-hop.
In the Caribbean itself, the term seems to have a variety of different meanings. For example, when used as a noun, a ‘big-up’ is an important person, or someone with a certain status in the community, a politician or a policeman maybe. Or, in Bahamian slang (from the islands of the Bahamas) ‘big up’ can mean to get bigger, referring to a pregnant woman.
From its origins within the context of reggae and dancehall music, the use of ‘big up’ has evolved and expanded. It has entered the mainstream and can be found in newspapers, not just tabloids, and on television.
But you know a word has really entered the language when a politician uses it. In a speech in June 2006, Conservative party leader David Cameron attempted to show his street cred (see Series 2) by using the word when he was talking about supposedly family-friendly supermarkets. ‘We’ve got to big up Asda... We need to big it up, talk about it, promote it...’ said Cameron, attracting a certain amount of ridicule as a result.
There seems to be an interesting difference in the way the verb is used in the UK and in the US. In the UK, it is generally the verb ‘big’ which changes to form the past or gerund, for example, ‘he bigged up his fellow artists’. In the US however, the ‘inflection’ (a variation in the form of a word to change its word class) is sometimes on the ‘up’ part of the term, giving us big-upped and big-upping.
About Jim Pettiward
Jim Pettiward has a BA (hons) in French and Spanish, CTEFLA and Trinity TESOL Diploma. He has taught EFL, EAP, ESP and Business English in Ecuador, Venezuela, Hungary and the UK. He has also worked as an ICT trainer for the British Council and the University of the Arts, London. He is currently teaching English for Academic Purposes in the Department of Humanities, Arts, Languages and Education at London Metropolitan University.