Q: Are “enliven,” “liven,” and “liven up” equally acceptable? Is one preferred? “Liven up” seems a little colloquial for written communication.
A: The verbs “enliven” and “liven” and the phrasal verb “liven up” are all acceptable English and have been for hundreds of years. The two verbs showed up in the early 1600s and the phrasal verb in the early 1800s.
All 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult include the three terms as standard English. Not one labels “liven up” as colloquial, informal, casual, or conversational.
Although “liven up” does strike us as somewhat more relaxed than “enliven,” we wouldn’t hesitate to use the phrasal verb in all kinds of writing.
Some of the dictionaries say “liven” is “usually” or “often” used with “up.” In fact, all the examples for “liven” in the 10 dictionaries include “up”—sometimes directly after the verb and sometimes after whatever is livened (as in “liven it up”).
Although “liven up” is more popular now than “liven” by itself, the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference, has contemporary examples for both usages.
The OED notes one significant difference in the use of the three terms: “enliven” is used only transitively (with an object) while “liven” and “liven up” can also be used intransitively (without an object).
The first of the terms to appear in writing was “enliven,” which originally was spelled “inliuen” (“inliven”) and meant “to give life to; to bring or restore to life,” according to the dictionary.
The earliest Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Contemplatio Mortis, et Immortalitatis (“A Contemplation of Death and Immortality”), 1631, by Henry Montagu, Earl of Manchester:
“Consider Death originally or in his owne nature, and it is but a departed breath from dead earth inliuened first by breath cast vpon it.”
The OED says “enliven” soon came to mean “to give fuller life to; to animate, inspirit, invigorate physically or spiritually.” The dictionary’s first citation for this sense in from a treatise comparing theological and legal righteousness:
“The Divinity derives itself into the souls of men, enlivening and transforming them into its own likeness” (Select Discourses, 1644–52, by the English philosopher and theologian John Smith).
At the beginning of the 18th century, Oxford says, “enliven” took on the sense of “to make ‘lively’ or cheerful, cheer, exhilarate.” The earliest example is from a treatise on theology and science:
“Their eminent Ends and Uses in illuminating and enlivening the Planets” (The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation, 1701, by John Ray, an English naturalist, philosopher, and theologian).
When “liven” first appeared in the 17th century, the OED says, it was used transitively in the sense of “to brighten or cheer, to animate; to bring energy and interest into.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation is from The New Covenant; or, the Saints Portion, a treatise by the Anglican theologian John Preston, written sometime before his death in 1628:
“Things liuened by the expression of the speaker, sometimes take well, which after, vpon a mature review, seeme eyther superfluous, or flat.”
The verb was first used intransitively in the early 18th century. The first OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a July 24, 1739, letter in which the English poet and landscape gardener William Shenstone describes a conversation with his housekeeper, Mrs. Arnold:
“ ‘Why, Sir, says she, the hen that I set last-sabbath-day-was-three-weeks has just hatched, and has brought all her eggs to good.’ ‘That’s brave indeed, says I.’ ‘Ay, that it is, says she, so be and’t please G—D and how that they liven, there’ll be a glorious parcel of ’em.’ ”
When “liven up” first appeared in the early 19th century, the OED says, it was used transitively in the figurative sense of “to give life to, put life into.”
The earliest example given is from “The Angel Message,” a poem in Recreations of a Merchant, or the Christian Sketch-Book (1836), by William A. Brewer:
“Hadst thou a thousand lives to live … and garden-sweat to tinct, / Or Calvary’s gore to liven up the sketch … ’twere vain indeed, / To attempt a lively portraiture of man / Freed from the guilt and power of sin.”
A few decades later, the phrasal verb took on the transitive sense of “to brighten, cheer, animate.” The first OED citation is from the novel Bellehood and Bondage (1873), by Ann Sophia Stephens:
“If she isn’t too knowing, and don’t put on beauty airs, perhaps it might do. … This girl may liven up the establishment a little.”
Finally, the first Oxford citation for the intransitive “liven up” is from the January 1863 issue of The Continental Monthly: “Thus refreshed, although soaked to the skin, Francesco livened up.”