How new phrasal verbs develop
In English, very few ‘new’ words are completely new. The
vast majority include at least one component that we are already familiar
with. A very common way of giving a name to a new concept is simply to
combine two existing words into a new phrase. Some recent examples are:
As well as new combinations of words, parts of existing
words are sometimes merged together to form new words. For example:
Very often, too, we simply find new ways of using words
that already exist. For example, because of the widespread use of computers,
nouns and verbs such as the ones below have acquired completely new senses
some of which are now used more frequently than the original meanings:
New verbs and adjectives are much less frequent than new
nouns. So all these trends in the development of new words suggest that
completely new phrasal verbs are likely to be quite rare in English, and
that any ‘new’ phrasal verbs that we do find will in most cases be formed
either from new combinations of existing verbs and particles, or through
existing phrasal verbs acquiring new meanings. For instance, until recently,
the phrasal verb bump someone off had only one meaning:
an informal way of saying ‘to murder someone’. But we now see this verb
being used in a new way, in examples like these:
This use of bump off refers to the situation where the connection between a person’s computer and the Internet is unexpectedly broken. A new sense of the phrasal verb has been born, so the dictionary entry now shows two meanings:
Many new combinations of verbs and particles arise from a creative use of English, when a speaker wants to find a verb that will express their thoughts at a particular moment. A common way of doing this is by manipulating one of the components of the phrasal verb either the verb or the particle.
In 2003, the celebrity cook Delia Smith was quoted as saying that she was ‘all reciped out ….’ when she announced her intention to retire from TV cookery programmes. You will not find an entry in any dictionary for the phrase be reciped out: writers and speakers often use words in creative ways, but dictionaries do not generally describe these individual creative acts.
Nevertheless, we understand what Delia means, because
the expression she has created follows a pattern that we are already familiar
with. By saying she is reciped out, she is expressing the idea of ‘having
done something so much that you don’t want to do it any more’. She means,
in other words, that she has used up all her ideas for new recipes. We
understand this because it reminds us of many existing phrasal verbs that
express similar ideas, for example:
Because we are already familiar with phrases like these,
we can make a mental association between the idea of being exhausted and
the use of the particle out, especially in the pattern:
This enables us to create new expressions by using out with a ‘new’ verb form, usually one that has been formed from a noun (such as recipe). Here are some other examples:
Sometimes adjectives are used to create new phrasal verbs.
For example the recent phrasal verb vague something up means
‘to make something seem less clear or detailed’, as in this example:
Another example from informal spoken English is the new
phrasal verb big something up. This means ‘to recommend
something in an enthusiastic way’, as in:
It is also used in the form big it up, to mean
‘to enjoy yourself in a social situation, often by spending lots of money’,
As well as the verb element in a phrasal verb, the particle element can be changed to create new meanings. A common way of doing this is to change the particle to create a phrasal verb that has an opposite meaning to an existing one. For example, the phrasal verb dumb something down is a disapproving way of saying ‘to make something simpler and easier to understand’, and it implies this leads to a loss of quality. People now sometimes use the ‘new’ verb ‘to dumb something up’ to describe the process of making something appear more complicated or more intellectual. The particle plays a very important role here. In order to make sense of this phrasal verb, we have to remember that up is the opposite of down, and therefore that dumb up must mean the opposite of dumb down despite the use of the word dumb (=‘stupid’) as the verb.
To give another example, the recent phrasal verb sex
something up means ‘to change something in order to make it seem
more interesting, exciting, or important’. It is used in sentences like
Some speakers and writers now use the expression ‘to sex something down’ to refer to the process of making something seem less interesting or exciting.
The same process can occur in nouns that are derived from
phrasal verbs. For example the derived noun hand-me-down (from
hand something down) refers to clothing that is passed on
from an older brother or sister to a younger member of the family:
The antonym (opposite) hand-me-up is now sometimes used to refer to something that a younger person gives to an older person because they no longer use it or because they have something better to replace it.
Writers and speakers often create ‘new’ phrasal verbs and derived nouns and adjectives that depend on associating a particular ‘meaning’ with the particle. The special particle entries in Macmillan Phrasal Verbs Plus (for words such as up, back, and out) are designed to explain the various ways in which the particle contributes to the meaning of a phrasal verb. So these entries will help you to understand any new combinations that you come across.
Here are a few examples of particles that are often used in this way, with a description of their ‘meanings’ and some examples of the new phrasal verb structures they have produced:
This particle is often used to express the idea of removing
something (as in phrasal verbs like cut off and cross off).
For example, in the context of removing someone from a job or position,
we sometimes find the new verb bin someone/something off:
As we have seen, this particle is used creatively to express the idea of having done something so much that you don’t want to do it any more. This explains ‘new’ verbs and adjectives like reciped out and partied out. It is sometimes also used (as in verbs like find out and hunt out) to suggest the idea of discovering information by means of a thorough search. For example: I had Googled out a relevant website. means ‘I managed to find it by using the Google search engine’.
This particle is often used creatively in two ways: