Q: I saw the expression “up and Adam” in the New York Times last month and the writer wasn’t making a pun or quoting someone else’s error. I thought it was “up and at ’em.” Please clarify.
A: The short answer is that you’re right and the Times was wrong, but there’s almost always a longer answer to questions about language. Let’s begin with the basics.
Although this informal expression is sometimes mangled as “up and Adam” or “up and atom,” the usual version is “up and at ’em!” The Oxford English Dictionary has several published citations, including these:
1933, from a letter of Dylan Thomas: “You like the … ‘up-&-at ’em’ … shoutings of Mr. Kipling.”
You’re not the only person to notice the Times goof. John E. McIntyre cited it on his blog You Don’t Say as an example of what happens when news organizations cut back on editing.
And there were several comments about it on the Eggcorn Forum, a language discussion group. An eggcorn is a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.” The linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman coined the term.
So, is “up and Adam” an eggcorn? I won’t spoil the suspense. For an answer, check out the linguist Arnold Zwicky’s blog, where he discussed whether it’s an eggcorn, a demi-eggcorn (don’t ask), or some other linguistic thingie.
Zwicky noted that some people who used “up and Adam” (I got 11,300 hits for it on Google) were making intentional puns, but many of them weren’t. He quotes one netizen as explaining the usage as a reference to the biblical Adam:
“There was imagery for me. I didn’t know much about Adam and Eve but I’d seen the Michelangelo painting segment where God’s finger is sort of commanding Adam to ‘get up.’ I wasn’t sure about Adam and didn’t think ‘up and Adam’ meant it was an exhortation to DO anything, but just to sort of ‘spring forth’ into the world. So that made some sense in terms of my Mom wanting me to get out of bed.”
You don’t say (as John McIntyre would put it).
My advice? Unless you’re making a pun (a very obvious one), forget about “up and Adam.”