steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Thoughts on Emergent Occasions - or, Feeling a Bit Up and Down

I'm trying to crosspost from DW, and it's not working, so I'm doing this manually. If it ends up appearing twice, that's why.

Despite getting a flu jab before Christmas (just £10 at Tesco!), I appear over the last couple of days to have caught flu. It's not been totally incapacitating, and I'm already feeling a bit better (though still with a slight fever), so I'm hoping that the jab may at least have done some good in mitigating its effects. Still, it's annoying. Anyway, I apologise for any residual delirium in what follows.

Lying in bed this morning, staring at the ceiling, I got to thinking about the rise of "down". In particular, there are three usages, which seem to me related:

1. put down to = attribute to, as in "I put the mildness of my illness down to my having got a flu jab."

It struck me that this might have arisen as an accounting metaphor, where things are put down in different columns of credit and loss. And, having checked the OED just now, I see that the earliest cited uses do indeed make some mention of accounts, albeit more in a divvying up the bill sort of way: "His Death was not Legally Due for and from himself, but might be put down to the Account of others" (1723). At the very least, I think it would be reasonable to say that "put down to" derives from an act of recording, sharing out, dividing up, etc.

What I'm wondering, though, is whether there's any connection between that prepositional verb and the following two usages. Here's the first, which I'm fairly sure is of more recent date:

2. down to = attributable to, as in "The mildness of my illness is down to my having got a flu jab."

It looks very similar and it's doing a similar semantic job - but the "put" has disappeared! And then there's this:

3. down to = up to, as in "Whether you get a flu jab is down to you."

My sense is that this is more recent still. It looks slightly different from the first two, but it preserves the basic idea of attributing responsibility for an action or event, albeit in this case a future event.

What I find interesting, if I'm right in thinking that the latter two phrases are related to the first (and each other) is that this is an instance of a prepositional verb where the prepositional part has become independent of the verb part. "Down to" has broken free of the semantic giant that is "put", like a growler breaking from an iceberg.

Is this a reasonable reading? And, if so, can we think of any other prepositional verbs where something similar has happened - i.e. the prepositions have come to do the job without the verb?
Tags: language
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