Make Up

I’ll have to make up some excuse for why I’m late.

They often argue, but they always make up soon afterwards.

Let me just finish putting on my make-up and then we can go.

I’m often impressed by the economy of the English language.

Here we see the basic phrase being used in three very different ways: twice as a phrasal verb, and once as a noun. The meanings are quite different: to create a fiction from scratch, to reconcile, and facial cosmetics (and the phrase can also be used as a noun to refer to what something consists of).

And yet, despite these differences in meaning, we never get confused about which meaning of the phrase is being used. Of course that’s largely thanks to context. From each of the three sentences above, the situation is quite clear, and therefore the meaning of the phrase.

But, if they’re so different, why not use different words and phrases, rather than just repeating make up? The main reason is simply that, despite these differences, make up still works perfectly well to convey the meaning in each case. If you make up a story, you make it from scratch. You start with nothing and build it up from there. Similarly, if you make up with someone, you’ve caused some damage to your relationship, like knocking down part of a brick wall. By reconciling, you’re repairing this damage, building the wall up again by placing one brick on top of another. Applying make-up might be slightly different (though for some people there’s not a huge difference between making themselves up and bricklaying), but the same basic idea remains. You’re making your design, and you’re building it up, layer upon layer (or just one layer, but you’re still building up from your skin).

Of course we could still use different words or phrases, but think about how much harder it would be to remember all that, especially if we did that for every case in English in which we use the same word or phrase with multiple meanings. Our vocabulary would quickly become much too unwieldy. Instead it’s much easier to use the same phrase for different contexts which share the same basic meaning. And that’s how language works anyway: whenever a new situation crops up that we need to label, we look around to see if there are any pre-existing words or phrases that will do the job. Fake news. Hashtag. Omnishambles. They’re all just repackaging old words and prefixes to meet the demand of new situations. So used are we to reusing language that when a daring visionary comes up with an entirely new word, it astounds us.

It’s interesting to think about how many basic ideas there are. Just as people claim there are only three basic stories, perhaps there are only certain basic concepts that express through language. I don’t find that limiting at all though. I think it’s a testament to our creativity, and ability to recognise patterns, that we can take these basic ideas, and use them to easily describe an entire universe.

5 thoughts on “Make Up

  1. Great piece Niall and you’re right, make up works equally as well in each sentence! Why struggle to change words when you don’t need to? I find the basic three words we need to try and replace are ‘good’, ‘very’ and ‘said’ – but not always, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think half the battle of learning English is remembering which preposition to add. Like: The expert did a make-over of Jan’s make-up, then made up a stunning bill. She handed it over and Jan made out a cheque.

    Omnishambles I haven’t heard yet—and neither has my spell-checker. I think the only way we get new words now, apart from inventing technological terms, is by borrowing from other languages. I’ll have to read about your daring visionary.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Specifically, I thought about it again on Sunday. While writing my last post, I had an old episode of Columbo on in the background. In it, William Shatner played an actor famous for playing a TV detective. He was trying to “help” Columbo solve the murder (of course he actually was the murderer). What struck me though was when he referred to pancake makeup. […]


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