Q: Our governor in Michigan uses the phrase “mask up” a lot, but it sounds off to me. What do you think about it?
A: In our opinion, “mask up” was an inevitable usage. To “mask up” is to put on a mask, just as to “suit up” is to put on a uniform, to “saddle up” is to put a saddle on a horse, and to “lawyer up” is to put a lawyer on the case.
Several phrasal verbs formed with “up” imply preparing for something, with “up” used emphatically to imply that the preparation is necessary or important.
With people arming themselves against Covid-19, “mask up” was bound to emerge. In addition, many states, counties, and cities have joined the “Mask Up” campaign launched last summer by the American Medical Association. That and other influences have made the phrase fairly common.
So far, not one of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult has an entry for “mask up.” However, Merriam-Webster’s entry for the verb “mask,” in the sense of “to put on a mask” or “to cover the face with a mask,” says it’s “often used with up.”
The British publisher Macmillan has no entry for “mask up” in its standard dictionary either. But last July it added one to its crowdsourced Open Dictionary with this definition: “to wear a mask or face covering.” The example given: “That’s why we are asking all Hoosiers to mask up—and speak up about how wearing your mask can save lives” (from an announcement by Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana, July 1, 2020).
When “mask up” was featured last summer as a “Word of the Day” on Macmillan’s blog, this explanation was given:
“The phrasal verb mask up is formed from the verb ‘mask’ and the adverb ‘up.’ ” The blog continued: “Although mask up isn’t new, you may have seen it around quite a bit recently. Mask up, like suit up or gown up, implies preparation for some particular activity, the ‘up’ part occurring in many phrasal verbs that indicate getting ready for something.”
Another British dictionary, Collins, says that “mask up” was submitted last September as a “new word suggestion” and that the term’s approval for the dictionary is “pending investigation.”
Later we’ll discuss some of the other phrasal verbs formed with “up,” but first a little more about “mask,” a word that probably comes from Arabic. Here’s the story.
In English, the verb “mask” was derived from the noun, both of which first appeared in English in the early 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The noun was borrowed into English from the French masque (a face covering), which in turn came from the Italian maschera (a mask), though the OED says any “further etymology [is] uncertain.”
However, Oxford and other sources suggest two possibilities for the origin of maschera in Italian. The less likely is that it came from the post-classical Latin masca (a specter or evil spirit), but that word too is of unknown ancestry.
A more probable source, and one that’s widely accepted, is the Arabic noun maskhara (a buffoon, joke, masquerade, or object of ridicule), derived from the verb sakhira (to ridicule or mock). In fact, many etymologists believe that maskhara is also the ultimate source of “masquerade” and “mascara” (the cosmetic).
Today the noun “mask” means a face covering, and that’s what it principally meant when it came into English in the early 1500s. But around the same time, a variant of the word was also used for a courtly entertainment in which masked participants danced and so forth. Early on, different spellings emerged for the two senses—“mask” for the first and “masque” for the second.
This is the earliest entry for the face-covering sense of “mask” in the OED: “The vices that they brought [from Asia] to Rome. … The patritiens [patricians] bearyng Measques, the Plebeyens usynge smelles [aromatic scents], and the emperours to weare purple.” John Bourchier’s translation from the Spanish of The Golden Boke of Marcus Aurelius, by Antonio de Guevara, translated sometime before Bourchier’s death in 1533.
Here’s how the OED defines the original meaning of the noun: “A covering worn on or held in front of the face for disguise, esp. one made of velvet, silk, etc., and concealing the whole face or the upper part of it (except the eyes), worn at balls and masques.”
The verb “mask” came into English around the same time. Originally, in the 1520s, it meant to take part in a masque or masquerade, and later in the 1500s, to be disguised or to wear a mask.
These are the dictionary’s earliest citations for the verb meaning “to cover (the face or head) with a mask; to disguise with a mask,” both from Shakespeare:
“Where now I haue no one to blush with me … To maske their browes and hide their infamie” (Lucrece, 1594) … “The Trompet soundes, be maskt, the maskers come” (Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1598).
Over the centuries, both the noun and the verb have had dozens of meanings, literal and figurative. We’ll skip to the protective senses that concern us today.
The OED’s definition of the noun “mask” in this sense is “a covering worn over the mouth and nose in order to reduce the transmission of infectious agents, or to prevent the inhalation of pollutants and other harmful substances.”
The dictionary’s earliest example: “It is absolutely necessary for important operations … to use a mask, which will filter the expired air” (a paper by Dr. Henry Lewis Wagner, presented before the Medical Society of California, April 19, 1900).
This later Oxford citation looks more familiar: “Jefferson and colleagues … advise public health measures like frequent handwashing, quarantining infected people, and wearing masks and gowns” (HealthFacts, the monthly newsletter of the Center for Medical Consumers, Feb. 5, 2006).
The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, hasn’t yet caught up to the verb “mask” as found today—to use a protective cover for breathing. Standard dictionaries, however, are on the case.
For instance, Merriam-Webster defines this use of “mask” as “to put on a mask” or “to cover the face with a mask” and gives this example: “As workplaces reopen, employees must mask and wash hands frequently.”
As we mentioned earlier, M-W also says the verb is “often used with up.” It gives this example: “On a recent weekend, we masked up and went for a bicycle ride in Tokyo” (New York Times, June 7, 2020).
We can’t tell you when “mask up,” meaning to put on a protective breathing mask for medical reasons, first appeared. But we did find this late 20th-century example:
“In the 80’s, we made dentists aware of the need to glove and mask up for protection from AIDS and hepatitis B” (from an interview with a marketer of health-care products, New York Times, June 30, 1996).
Finally, a few other phrasal verbs that use “up,” along with definitions and the earliest OED citations:
“Saddle up,” meaning “to put a saddle on (a horse or other animal),” or “get in the saddle”; later (like “mount up”) it acquired an extended sense, to get ready or get going. Earliest use: “He sadled vp his horse, and roade in post away” (Tragicall Tales, 1587, G. Turberville’s translations of Italian poems).
“Suit up,” meaning to dress in or provide someone with “a set of clothes or garment (such as a spacesuit, wetsuit, etc.) designed or required for a particular activity or occupation”; or to dress smartly or in a suit. Earliest use: “Last year the team looked like a bunch of rag muffins and the University and students should see to it that the Baker team is suited up in the right manner this year” (from a Kansas newspaper, the Lawrence Daily Journal-World, Feb. 28, 1912).
“Gown up,” meaning “to put on a surgical gown, esp. before taking part in an operation.” Earliest use: “My staff recognize my work even if they don’t actually see my face. But, of course, they did see it, before I gowned up” (P. D. James’s novel A Taste for Death, 1986).
“Lawyer up,” meaning “to request a lawyer when being questioned by the police” or, more generally, “to hire a lawyer.” Earliest use: “What really spooks the … detectives on ‘N.Y.P.D. Blue’ is the prospect of a suspect ‘lawyering up’ ” (New York Times, Feb. 23, 1995).