Q: The phrase “up and at ’em” is older than you suggest—at least in Spanish. Is it borrowed? The Spaniards who conquered the New World used arriba y a ellos as a battle cry.
A: Although “up and at ’em” has a Spanish equivalent—arriba y a ellos—we’re doubtful that the English expression came from Spanish. In fact, the English version apparently appeared first.
In our 2010 post, we mentioned an Oxford English Dictionary citation (“the up-and-at-’em aspect of things”) dating from 1909.
In addition, the OED has examples like this one, found in a letter written by Katharine Mansfield in 1919: “Lets up and at em this winter.”
Oxford also has examples of “up and at” from the late 19th century that are followed by other pronouns, like “up and at it” and “up and at him.”
But in our own searches, we’ve found published examples of the uncontracted “up and at them” from early 19th-century England. And while Americans borrowed language from Spanish in the early 1800s, the British generally did not.
The earliest examples we’ve found appeared in 1815 in hastily published accounts of the Battle of Waterloo, which had been fought in June of that year.
The Duke of Wellington, according to these sources, used the expression as a war cry on the famous battlefield. This example is from The Battle of Waterloo (1815), written “By a Near Observer”:
“The Duke, who was riding behind us, watched their approach, and at length, when within a hundred yards of us, exclaimed, ‘Up, Guards, and at them again!’”
Another, from A Short Detail of the Battle of Waterloo (1815), was said to have been “collected on the spot” (apparently by a British officer). It has this passage:
“ ‘Up, Guards, and at them,’ cried the Duke of Wellington, who was then with a brigade of the Guards. In an instant they sprung up, and, assuming the offensive, rushed upon the attacking columns with the bayonet.”
But while Wellington’s words were indeed published in 1815—and in different accounts—he denied late in life that he’d said them.
In an 1852 letter to his friend John Wilson Croker, a former Secretary to the Admiralty, Wellington wrote:
“What I must have said, and possibly did say was, Stand up, Guards! and then gave the commanding officers the order to attack.” (Published in The Croker Papers, 1884.)
Whether authentic or not, the battle cry became instantly famous and was widely quoted from 1815 on. It was popular on playing fields, in the streets, and in sporting circles.
Christopher North’s novel Winter Rhapsody, serialized in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, describes a schoolboys’ game in which a character shouts, “Guards, up and at them!” (From the February 1831 issue.)
This example is from an eyewitness account of a riot that occurred on March 18, 1833, in the Irish city of Newry:
“Again these poor fellows came to the charge, ‘up and at them,’ and routed the mob completely.” (The testimony was published in the papers of the House of Commons in July 1835.)
And this sporting example is from a description of a four-mile steeplechase in Shropshire in December 1837:
“Tarporley, again all right, was up and at ’em across the ploughed field.” (The report was published in the January 1838 issue of a British magazine, the Sportsman.)
As for the Spanish phrase, arriba y a ellos, it seems to have originated later.
The earliest example we’ve been able to find is from an Oct. 10, 1889, speech by the Cuban national hero José Martí at Hardman Hall in New York.
In the speech, commemorating Oct. 10, 1868, the beginning of the Cuban wars of independence, Martí quotes “almirante Nelson” (not the Duke of Wellington) as using the battle cry:
Y el almirante le dijo, de una buena tronada de la voz: “¡Al diablo las maniobras: arriba y a ellos!” (“And the admiral told them, in a thunderous voice, ‘The hell with maneuvers, up and at them!’ ”)
We haven’t been able to find any examples of arriba y a ellos from the days of the Conquistadors—at least not in Spanish.
But it appears that the Aztecs who resisted the Spanish conquest may have used a version of “up and at them” as a battle cry in their native language, Nahuatl.
In The Human Record: Sources of Global History (4th ed.), Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield provide firsthand accounts of the events that made history.
One of these is the battle for Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, in 1519, as Cortés and his forces set out to conquer Mexico.
The account the authors quote, compiled by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary, was written in Nahuatl and Spanish some 25 years after the battle.
Sahagún mastered Nahuatl and collected oral histories from Aztec survivors of the battle.
This is from Sahagún’s account in La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva Espanã, translated into English from Nahuatl:
“When they [the Spaniards] got to Tlilhuacan, the [Aztec] warriors crouched far down and hid themselves, hugging the ground, waiting for the war cry, when there would be shouting and cries of encouragement. When the cry went up, ‘O Mexica, up and at them!’ the Tlappanecatl Ecatzin, a warrior of Otomi [elite] rank, faced the Spaniards and threw himself at them, saying, ‘O Tlatelolca warriors, up and at them, who are these barbarians? Come running!’ ”
(We searched the Spanish text in various versions of Sahagún’s account and couldn’t find the expression arriba y a ellos.)