WORDS: UPS & DOWNS

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The Independent Culture
"At the end of the day," said Peter Mandelson, "it' down to the company and all those who work in it to turn this situation round." The company was Rover; the vocabulary was second-hand: good runner, would suit busy politician. I read the quote in the London Evening Standard and for a moment I had the unworthy thought that the reporter, unable to get hold of Mr M, had made it up. (News editor: "Well, what would he have said?") But no, it had been on Radio 4. The only thing missing was "the bottom line".

I was slightly surprised to see "at the end of the day" still being used by a cabinet minister. This was already getting to be a bit of a joke during Harold Wilson's second tenure.

In other respects, however, Mr Mandelson was reasonably up to date. Note that he didn't say it was up to Rover to pull their socks up. It was down to them to do it. Hardly anyone under 30 says "up" in this context.

It seems odd that we can substitute one adverb or preposition for another adverb or preposition which suggests its exact opposite, and yet still mean the same thing. There can't be many pairs of this sort: with can never mean the same as without, or for the same as against. (The only other pair of reconcilable opposites that I can think of is to and from, as in "different - or averse - to/from", sometimes disputed among purists, though they are long-established alternatives).

So how did this somersault come about? How did up become down? Simple really. It's just a question of metaphors.

"Up to" was a metaphor from the game of poker, and the person to whom it was up was the one whose turn it was to up the ante; we borrowed this from the Americans, and promptly forgot its origin.

"Down to" didn't come along until about 40 years later - the OED's first instance dates from 1955 - and it makes a good deal more sense. It's clear that it's from book-keeping, or the keeping of records generally; in theory one's name could be either on the credit or the debit side of the ledger, but it's come to mean mostly the debit. And there's still some life left in the metaphor. One of Rover's employees told the Sun last week: "The workers can't be blamed for the strong pound - that's down to Tony Blair," and you got a faint but not unpleasing image of Tony being booked.

All the same, I rather regret the current eclipse of "up to", because "down to" carries too many meanings. As used by Mr Mandelson it implied responsibility; as used by the man in the Rover factory it implies blame, something else altogether. There's no ambiguity about "up to".

Of course one can understand and admire Mr Mandelson's feeling for the contemporary idiom and the familiar phrase. But meanwhile, don't you sometimes wish that our politicians didn't speak all the time in cliches?

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