The Grammarphobia Blog

Ginning up the politics

Q: I hear the term “gin up” used more and more these days, especially by politicians. Do you know its origin? Does it have anything to do with a gin pole?

A: The term “gin up” dates back to the 1880s, and originally meant to drink hard liquor. The first reference I could find comes from a book called Saddle and Moccasin: “They were ginning her up, that’s a fact.”

In the early 20th century the term also came to mean to drink before going to a party—I suppose for the purpose of getting a head start on the other drinkers.

In the 1970s “gin up” took on a third meaning: to stir up or excite or get something going. That’s the way it’s generally used now. One pol, for example, might accuse another of ginning up a phony crisis.

As for your second question, I don’t see evidence that “gin up” has anything to do with a gin pole, a lifting device for oilfields, construction sites, ships, etc.

The two boozy meanings probably come from drinking gin, an alcoholic beverage flavored with juniper. The word “gin” is short for geneva or Hollands Geneva, the original Dutch name of the booze. (The Dutch word for juniper is jeneverbes.)

As for the more recent usage (to stir up, etc.), some language authorities speculate that it may be related to “generate” or “engineer” or “ginger up” (as in adding spice to something or getting someone’s spirit up).

Most of this comes from Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and a posting by Douglas G. Wilson on the American Dialect Society’s Linguist List.

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