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Wildly irregular or no longer insuperable?
Approaches to teaching and
learning phrasal verbs


Language interference
False friends between
Spanish and English

Focus on Phrasal Verbs:
How new phrasal verbs develop

New word of the month
From metrosexual to metrosessuale:
the global influence of English in
the creation of neologisms

Corpora tips
Googling for idiomatic language
Search engines as corpora tools



How new phrasal verbs develop
by Kerry Maxwell

• Forming new words
• New phrasal verbs
• Creative uses of phrasal verbs
     • Creative use of the verb component
     • Creative use of the particle component
• Particle meanings and 'new' phrasal verb structure
     • OFF
     • OUT
     • UP

Forming new words

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:
text message

As well as new combinations of words, parts of existing words are sometimes merged together to form new words. For example:
digibox (digital + box)
movieoke (movie + karaoke)

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 phrasal verbs

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:
An error message appeared and I was bumped off the Net.
There’s a problem with a virus and you get bumped off after a few minutes of being online.

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:


Creative uses of phrasal verbs

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.


Creative use of the verb component

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:
tire someone out (= make them feel exhausted) and its derived form tired out (=very tired)

And similarly:
worn out (from wear someone out)
burnt out (from burn yourself out)

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:
-ed (past participle) + out

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:
partied out (‘tired of going to parties, because you have been to so many’)
conferenced out (‘tired of going to conferences’)
barbecued out (‘tired of eating barbecue food’)

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:
I vagued up certain parts of the story.

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:
I know I sound like I’m bigging it up, but it was a great piece of music.

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 in:
We took a trip to a local club where the lads were really bigging it up.


Creative use of the particle component

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 this:
He deliberately sexed up the report so that they would pay more attention to his ideas.

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:
All her clothes were hand-me-downs.

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.


Particle meanings and ‘new’ phrasal verb structures

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:
He was given the chairman’s job when Arthur was binned off for missing too many meetings.



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:
Improving, making something seem more sophisticated, attractive, interesting, or exciting. This meaning is reflected in phrasal verbs like jazz up and dress up, and has been used to create ‘new’ phrasal verbs like sex up and big up. Another example of the same idea is tech up, which produces the adjective teched-up (meaning ‘provided with computers, Internet access etc’:
Our schools are rapidly becoming teched-up centres of learning.
Preparing for something by gathering things or people together. This meaning is reflected in phrasal verbs like stock up. Following patterns like let’s get stocked up for the winter, new combinations often occur in the structure get -ed up, as in the example get lawyered up:
We need to get lawyered up if we want to claim our money back.