The Grammarphobia Blog

Give it up for the emcee!

Q: “Give it up,” MC-speak when asking for applause, hasn’t sat well with me—until now. I recently came upon a similar wording that suggests the expression has Dickensian roots. In Great Expectations, Mr. Wopsle, the clerk at the village church, is described as “a gentleman that you would like to hear give it out.” Wot say ye?

A: The expression “give it up,” meaning to applaud, originated in the US more than a century after Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s first citation for the expression comes from a Usenet newsgroup in a posting from March 1990: “Hey folks, let’s give it up for Andy! One huge round of applause please!”

The dictionary’s definition reads “to give it up: (of an audience, etc.) to applaud; to show appreciation for an entertainer, etc.” The phrase is usually used in the imperative, the OED adds, especially “as an exhortation by a compère.”

Oxford has several more examples from the 1990s, including these two, one American and one British:

“Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together—give it up!—for three combative comedy releases” (from People magazine, 1993).

“London studio stalwart Tony Remy goes live, complete with a ‘Let’s give it up for Tony’ rallying call” (from the Evening Standard, 1999).

So it would appear that British emcees adopted the “Let’s give it up for …” routine from their colleagues in America, rather than the other way around.

Dickens’s phrase “give it out” has another meaning altogether, and Dickens wasn’t the first to use it.

As the OED explains, the expression “give it out” has been used in various ways since the 14th century in the sense of announcing, proclaiming, uttering, and so on.

It has also meant to put forth or utter prayers, to announce a psalm in church, or to read out the words to be sung by a congregation.

Here’s a 19th-century example cited by the OED: “The clerk in church … gave out the psalm” (from Sabine Baring-Gould’s novel The Gaverocks, 1887).

This latter meaning is probably the one Dickens had in mind in Great Expectations.

When Joe Gargery (Pip’s brother-in-law) calls Mr. Wopsle “a gentleman that you would like to hear give it out,” he apparently means the clerk has a great delivery in church.

Elsewhere in the novel, Pip, the narrator, describes a dinner-table scene in which “Mr. Wopsle said grace with theatrical declamation,—as it now appears to me, something like a religious cross of the Ghost in Hamlet with Richard the Third.”

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