U.P: up and away
U 8.255-9: She took a folded postcard from her handbag.
— Read that, she said. He got it this morning.
— What is it? Mr Bloom asked, taking the card. U. P.?
— U. p: up, she said. Someone taking a rise out of him. It’s a great shame for them whoever he is.
Sometimes there are too many options available to allow us to be confident about the meaning (or a set of meanings) that should be ascribed to a term. Joyce’s use of “U. p: up” with reference to the slightly crack-brained Denis Breen is regarded as just such a problem, and it is one that has puzzled Joyce scholars for decades.
U. P: up in Joyce
Denis Breen receives a postcard. The message on the postcard seems to be U.P. Breen himself is infuriated, and wants to sue the sender for the astronomical sum of £10,000. Mrs Breen folds the postcard up and puts it in her bag, but still shows it to Bloom, who needs an explanation for the abbreviation. When others hear of the message they laugh. Why is the message so potent? Why does Joyce repeat the expression fourteen times in the pages of Ulysses?
Robert Martin Adams carefully reviews five principal options (Surface and Symbol, pp. 192-3). Don Gifford follows other commentators by throwing in one or two more possibilities. Vladimir Nabokov preferred to associate the expression with “U.P. spells goslings”, apparently a schoolboy insult recorded principally in the English midlands.1 Richard Ellmann is attracted to the schoolboy humour of “you pee up”, apparently the source of various potential urinatory or sexual innuendoes. Leah Harper Bowron carries the speculation game to the extreme, with a specific medical diagnosis:2
To avoid the pitfalls of retrofitting the sense of the message it seems safer, from a linguistic point of view, to look at what the expression “U. P.” might mean. Sam Slote sensibly offers a conservative view:
We know that the French translation of Ulysses (at least approved in general if not at every turn by Joyce) takes a similar line:
The same is true of the 1927 German translation by Goyert, which has “P-L-E-M: plem” (“gaga”) instead of “U.P: up”.
We might look at how Joyce himself employs the term in a letter to Valery Larbaud of 17 October, 1928:3
Joyce includes a reference to the
expression in a Cyclops notebook (dated to June – September 1919 in Zurich). As he had finished Lestrygonians in the autumn of 1918 this was probably just a
reminder, but the entry seems to make it clear that “U. P.” is regarded by
Joyce as being equivalent to “up” - as Mrs Breen explains it to Bloom (who seems at first baffled by the expression):
We should remember, too, that just before Mrs Breen takes the folded postcard from her handbag to show it to Bloom, she says that her husband has been frightened by a nightmare in which he saw “the ace of spades” climbing “up” the stairs. The “ace of spades” is “a widow, esp. one wearing mourning weeds”, according to the OED. The expression is listed in Heinrich Baumann’s Londinismen, a catalogue of London cant and slang which Joyce knew and cites elsewhere. Perhaps that helps to explain Mr Breen’s eccentric reaction.The general opinion within Joyce’s texts is that the unusual expression “U. p.: up” means more or less what the Oxford English Dictionary says: “over, finished, beyond remedy”.
U. P.: up: the earliest uses
At present the balance of evidence between the numerous potential meanings is more or less equal, with only one or two elements of support for each. But a review of contemporaneous attestations makes us realise that the traditional, conservative meaning (“all up”, finished, over) was much better known in Joyce’s day and for over half a century before than is remembered today. This does not rule out other interpretations, but it does tend to isolate the dominant sense.
The first authentic example of the expression
“all u-p, up” (in which the hyphen presumably indicates that the letters are
spoken individually) apparently turns up in a boxing context, and from later
evidence it is possible that its origins lie among pugilists.5 Sampson,
the Birmingham button-maker, is fighting the acclaimed Joshua Hudson in a
bareknuckle fight at Banstead Downs in Surrey in 1821. By the twenty-sixth
round Sampson’s position is looking untenable:
U. P.: up in common use in the mid-nineteenth century
The OED helps out with four mid-nineteenth century uses, in which the letters of “up” are written individually again:
The OED (followed by Gifford and others) focuses on Dickens’s example from Oliver Twist, but it seems that his employment of much the same expression in Nicholas Nickleby later in 1838 (book publication 1839) was more frequently cited in nineteenth-century texts:
The quotation from Ann Elizabeth Baker
above hints that “all U.P.” may connote the breakdown of a person’s health. The
discussion in Cyclops associates the expression with Breen’s fragile state of
John Wood Warter (in the quotation from The Last of the Old Squires) introduces yet another potential origin for the expression, which again appears to be unsupported elsewhere.
Over the mid-nineteenth century the
expression also makes numerous appearances in verse and song. Frederick
Farmer’s 1843 comic song “The Werry Last of Dustmen” (pianoforte accompaniment
by J. Feron) contains the chorus:
The Era of 1846 offers another,
more lugubrious, example:
John Camden Hotten gives the expression a place in his dictionary
John Camden Hotten was the slang lexicographer of the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, he was many things as well as being a lexicographer of slang. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes him as “a bookseller, publisher, journalist, author, controversialist, and general textual entrepreneur”, always “frantically busy”. His Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words was self-published in 1859 and went through several new editions and revisions as the century progressed. His entry for “U.P.” – squeezed between Unwhisperables (trousers) and Upper Benjamin (a greatcoat) – confirms the popularity of the expression at the time:
Late Victorian usage
Later use in the nineteenth
century prefers to include “all” - in the form “all U.P. up”. So here we find a
chairman standing down from office:
But the Blackburn Standard rejects “all”:
It is at this time that we encounter an
occurrence of expression in the form “U.P. UP.” that has intrigued Joyce
scholars. As Luke Gibbons points out, it forms the headline of one of the popular
gossip columns in the Celtic Times (18
June 1887) written by Michael Cusack (the Citizen). There
are numerous layers to the appropriateness of “U.P. UP” here. In the
conventional sense, the article laments the “sudden and unprovided death” of
the Caledonian Games’ Society: in other words, the C.G.S. is “over”, or “finished”
or “U.P.” As well as including “UP” in the sense “all over”, John Camden Hotten
also sneaked in another (originally Scottish) slang term “U.P.” = “United
Presbyterian” to his dictionary of slang. Cusack says at the close of his
Cusack’s reference to a “Helptheboys Hall” additionally draws in the favourite reference of the time to Mr Squeers’s “U-p-up, adjective, not down” cited above.
Further references continue into the
twentieth century. As Joyce was writing Ulysses
he might have taken a look at Back to Blighty (1917), by Alexander John
Dawson, and illustrated by Bruce Bairnsfather. On p. 146 he would have found:
Joyce uses variations of the expression “U P: up” fourteen times in Ulysses. The colon seems to indicate that the two sections of the expression have equivalent status and are not part of a longer abbreviation. The evidence is overwhelming that the ordinary person in the late nineteenth century would have known “U.P.” or “U.P. up” as a slang expression meaning “all up”, “over, finished, without remedy”, even “not likely to survive”. We know from a letter in 1928 that Joyce knew this explanation, and we assume that this is the meaning of the term he wrote down on one of his notesheets. In some circles, “U.P.” was also a well established abbreviation for “United Presbyterian”, but it is questionable how relevant this is to Denis Breen.
From the internal dynamics of Ulysses and from the social etiquette of the day (would
Mrs Breen show Molly's husband a postcard with a virtually unspeakable
obscenity?) we might regard the “You pee up” interpretation, which has
sometimes found favour, to be laboured. The final
occurrence of the abbreviation in the novel is found in Molly’s monologue at
After the I-narrator of “Cyclops” Molly has perhaps the most slanderous tongue in Ulysses. And yet she passes up the opportunity to make a malicious comment on the supposedly obscene allusion behind the wording of Breen’s postcard. She simply regards him as a forlorn-looking spectacle of a husband who is mad enough on occasions to go to bed with his boots on. This is in keeping with the way in which Breen is regarded generally in the novel – the cronies in Cyclops collapse with laughter at his lunatic behaviour, not because of some urinary or sexual irregularity.
There have been many other interpretations of the expression, normally made without appreciating the strength of the traditional meaning. One or other of these alternative readings may of course still be valid in a context of multiple interpretation, but without additional understanding of why Denis Breen runs to lawyers when he sees the postcard it is probably safest to stick to the conservative reading and to regard the others as only distant possibilities.
1 See Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Ulysses: a facsimile of the manuscript (1980). I am
grateful to George Bergman of Berkeley for this reference. The older form “U K
P spells May goslings” may be found in the Gentleman’s
Magazine (vol. 69, p. 327) of 1791. For later examples see the English
Dialect Dictionary (1905),
vol. 6 p. 320.