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

Denis Breen 'pees up' or sprays his urine upward when urinating from a standing position because he has hypospadias and his urethral opening is within or behind his testes.

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:

U. P.: up 'U.P., the spelling pronunciation of UP adverb, = over, finished, beyond remedy' (OED, s.vv., U; u.p.). The expression 'U.P.: up' dates at least as far back as Dickens (as quoted in OED).

We know that the French translation of Ulysses (at least approved in general if not at every turn by Joyce) takes a similar line:

In the French edition of Ulysses the postcard is translated fou tu, "you're nuts, you've been screwed, you're all washed up". (Gifford: p. 163)

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

Apparently I have completely overworked myself and if I don't get back sight to read it is all U-P up.

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):

R <U.P. = up.>4

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:

Sampson came up quite distressed, and was soon sent down. "It’s all u-p, up," says an over-the-water kid: "it's Ned Turner's street to a pipkin; and I vou'dn't stand it."6

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:

It's all U.P. there, […] if she lasts a couple of hours, I shall be surprised.

Charles Dickens Oliver Twist (1838), vol. 2 ch. 24 p. 67

'It's all U.P. with him'; i.e. all up either with his health, or circumstances.

Ann Elizabeth Baker Glossary of Northamptonshire Words (1854), vol. 2 p. 370

It was in one of the Midland Counties, where Roman Catholics still retain the name of "Shaver" and "Shaveling" from the Tonsure of their Order ,and where "It is all O.P.", was yet a Phrase not quite obsolete — implying, as is well known, the several Parties of Orthodox and Puritan, now corrupted into the simpler saw, 'It's all U P—up!'

John Wood Warter Last of the Old Squires (1854), ch. 9 p. 87

It's a long lane that has no turning, but I did think for five minutes afore I saw your fire that it was about U.P.

1861 George Whyte-Melville Good for Nothing (1861), vol. 2 ch. 27 p. 18

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:

This is a altered state of trigonomics, this is – a double l – all, everything – a cobbler’s weapon. U-p-up, adjective, not down. S-q-u - double e - r-s - Squeers, noun substantive, a educator of youth. Total, all up with Squeers!

Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby (1839), vol. 2 ch. 28 p. 317

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 mental health:

— Did you see that bloody lunatic Breen round there? says Alf. U. p. up.

— Yes, says J. J. Looking for a private detective. (U 12.1031-5)

— Of course an action would lie, says J. J. It implies that he is not compos mentis. U. p: up.

Compos your eye! says Alf, laughing. Do you know that he’s balmy? Look at his head. Do you know that some mornings he has to get his hat on with a shoehorn. (U 12.1041-7)

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:

It's all U.P. with us, d'ye see,

My bell's quite full of rust, man;

The reason know, there’s no dust O,

And I'm the last of dustmen –

The werry last of dustmen.7

The Era of 1846 offers another, more lugubrious, example:

"The Crack" had cracked, our pretty "Book" to floor,

Nor Hope herself could live to Barnby Moor:

Brim full of horrors that dread night to sup,

In dreams dyspeptic spelling U P – up!8

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:

UP, […] "it’s all UP with him", i.e., it is all over with him, often pronounced U.P., naming the two letters separately.

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:

Those who know Mr. Reed won’t take these things as news. Let Cardiff ask Milford men. Then it is all u-p up. Is such a man worthy of Cardiff?

Western Mail (1880), 3 April

But the Blackburn Standard rejects “all”:

I am afraid the Collecting Societies, who thought they were in a fair way to procure an amendment in the Friendly Societies’ Act, which would improve their own efficiency and usefulness, will have as we say to spell u-p, up, so far as the present session is concerned.

Blackburn Standard (1888), 7 July p. 8

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).9 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 article:

A United Presbyterian (I don’t know how long he is married) laughed when I gave him the top of the "Ray" [Cusack’s "Harmonic Rays" column], and he heartily endorsed the opinion expressed by an educator of youth and the proprietor of Helptheboys Hall.

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:

I don't know what the munition reserves are, but if we can get all we want of guns an' shells, it's all UP up with Master blooming Boche.


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 18.228-30:

Now hes going about in his slippers to look for £10000 for a postcard U p up O sweetheart May wouldn’t a thing like that simply bore you stiff to extinction actually too stupid even to take his boots off.

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.

John Simpson


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.

2 Leah Harper Bowron, “The pusillanimous Denis: “What “U.P: up” really Breens” (M.A. dissertation: Department of English, University of Birmingham, Alabama, 2013), Abstract p. iii.

3 James Joyce, Letters (1966), vol. 3 p. 182.

4 Phillip Herring, Joyce's Ulysses Notesheets in the British Museum (1972), p. 82.

5 See The Age (1837), 11 June: “Now, says the ould Bruiser to himself, “Jack, (says he) if we stick to this bear-garden Work, and leave off flat-catching, it will very soon be all U P up with us […] D.I.O. (Damme I’m Off).”

6 Pierce Egan Boxiana (1829), vol. 3 p. 499 [reprinted from 1821].

7 Lyrics reproduced in The Quaver; or, Songster’s Pocket Companion (London, 1844), pp. 268-70.

8 The Era (1846), 13 September.

9 Luke Gibbons “Famished Ghosts”: Bloom, Bible Wars, and “U.P. up” in Joyce’s Dublin’”, in Dublin James Joyce Journal (2009), vol. 2 p. 14.

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