Q: I noticed a new usage this week—three times, thus far—that strikes me as peculiar. A radio ad: “Are you ready to change up your furniture?” Isn’t it redundant to use “change up” where simply “change” would suffice?
A: The verbal phrases “change up” and “change down” have been around for more than a century, but with another meaning—to change gears in a motor vehicle. (In a moment, we’ll get to the usage you noticed.)
The online Oxford Dictionaries describes the vehicular usage as British and gives this example: “what you notice with a diesel is the need to change up slightly earlier than in a petrol car.”
The big Oxford English Dictionary has examples going back to 1902. This more recent one is from Life at the Top, a 1962 novel by John Braine: “I changed down into second; then changed up again.”
Americans are of course familiar with the noun “changeup,” which the Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.) defines as either “a slow ball thrown after one or more fastballs, or a letup pitch to look like a fastball to upset the batter’s timing.”
The earliest example of the baseball usage in the OED is from J. G. Taylor Spink’s Baseball Guide and Record Book 1943: “Change-up, change of pace, slow ball.”
But we prefer this example, which also appears in Dickson, from the May 7, 1948, issue of the Birmingham News: “He’s got everything—speed, curve, change-up and plenty of heart.”
This brings us back to your question. The verb phrase “change up” in the sense you ask about (to upgrade) is a relative newcomer that doesn’t have an entry yet in the OED or the eight standard dictionaries we regularly check.
It first showed up in the 1970s, according to a search of Google Books, but it was rarely used until the turn of the new century.
The first example we could find is from the 1973 Summer Manual of the American Football Coaches Association:
“You must change up your option defense to both attack and finesse the quarterback.”
A recent example is this Jan. 3., 2014, headline from Runner’s World: “Change Up Your Running Routine / Tweaking your schedule magically produces fast results.”
Is the usage redundant? Well, we’ve found some examples that use “change up” simply to mean “change,” but most people use the phrase in the sense of “change for the better.”
We think that’s how “change up” is being used in that example of yours. The radio ad is appealing to potential customers who are ready to “change up” their furniture (that is, replace it with something better).
Here’s another example, from a May 20, 2013, post on the Shop Smart website: “Change Up Your Furniture, Change Up Your Life.”
If changing your furniture doesn’t improve your life enough, you can change your routine, as a Feb. 19, 2014, article in Elite Daily, a website for generation Y, recommends: “Change Up Your Daily Routine And Change Your Life For The Better.”
We’ll end with a cautionary tale for fellow googlers. In searching for “change up,” we found the phrase in Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a 1998 book by David Pietrusza.
A footnote in the book describes an incident that reportedly took place when Landis, the first baseball commissioner, shared a box at the 1934 World Series with Will Rogers and J. G. Taylor Spink, publisher of the Sporting News:
“At one point Spink, a big tipper, gave a vendor a $20 bill for a hot dog. When the boy said he’d be back with Spink’s change, Spink cheerfully yelled out, ‘Stick the change up your behind,’ meaning the lad should keep it.”