Etymology Usage

How full is full up?

Q: I recently saw somebody on television describe a movie theater as “full up.” Is that right? Is it a dialect thing? Wouldn’t “full” be more normal?

A: First, let’s fill in a bit of history.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the adjective “full” in this sense as meaning “having within its limits all it will hold; having no space empty; replete.”

“Full” is a very old word (first recorded in Old English before the year 1000) and it likes company.

The OED says “full” is often accompanied by intensifiers, as in “full to the brim,” “full to overflowing,” and “full up” (which it describes as colloquial). 

And don’t think that “full up” is a new coinage. Here it is in an 1892 article about cemeteries in the London Daily News: “Because they are full up … this additional one is required.”

The phrase was used even earlier with a slightly different meaning. In 19th-century British colonial slang, to be “full up” of something was to be sated with or tired of it.

Here are a couple of examples from the OED:

1890, in The Miner’s Right, an Australian novel by “Rolf Boldrewood” (the pseudonym of T. A. Browne): “She was ‘full up’ of the Oxley … a rowdy, disagreeable goldfield.”

1891, in Homeward Bound After Thirty Years: A Colonist’s Impressions of New Zealand, Australia, Tangier and Spain, by Edward Reeves: “The men … get tired, or as the colonial slang goes, ‘full up,’ soonest.”

In short, “full up” has been around for quite a while, but the OED still considers it colloquial.

We think it’s OK in speech and casual writing, but we’d go with “full” on formal occasions.

Check out our books about the English language