Gin up (or ginning up, or ginned up) is an odd expression to me, something I don’t think I’d heard until I was in my 30s, and then I took it to be both uncommon and strictly British slang. But it’s made inroads over the past decade or so, and in looking into it I’ve found interesting, conflicting, and unusual potential origins (and meanings).
I’ve been dealing with fabricated stupidity this week (a cousin of artificial stupidity; both entirely unrelated to artificial intelligence). Unconnected to that, I came across a possible misuse of gin up in something I was reading, and it occurred to me that ginned up was a perfectly apropos way to describe much of the situation I’d been dealing with.
Gin up is an interesting phrase because the origin is disputed at the same time that the exact meaning is unsettled. There are at least two answers to everything with this phrase.
The meaning, according to most sources, is ‘to whip up, to inflame; to make something appear livelier or more active or more important than it actually is.’ A second meaning is similar, but goes a little further; if something has been ginned up, it hasn’t just been bolstered, it’s been essentially fabricated or created; it’s a major doctoring of the facts, with intent. This is the definition I first became familiar with when the phrase was used frequently to describe British intelligence documents concerning Iraq’s WMD program; it’s also why I mistakenly believed it to be strictly a Britishism. Perhaps it was more common in other regions of the US, but where I’d lived (mid-Atlantic), I’d never heard it.
Of course, there’s also the colloquial ginned up definition (also in most dictionaries): ‘liquored up, or drunk.’ Gin being a type of liquor, the connection is obvious. In the name of complete coverage, I’ll note that you might rarely encounter gin up used to mean ‘improvise’ (as in “stuck in the desert with a broken fan belt and no spare, Ed ginned up a replacement using his suspenders”), or in the sense of “ante up” (from the card game, gin). You might very rarely encounter someone using it in place of chin up (which seems to be an error related to the similarity of their sounds).
There are several competing etymologies for gin up, all with at least some plausibility. The primary one that sources lean to, especially the scholarly sources, is that this gin is shortened from engine. Visualize an engine pushing something along at a greater than normal speed, and gin up in this sense is believable. Surprisingly though, this etymology twists and forks again, since the older sense of engine that it refers to is actually the ‘trick or trap’ definition. Since this engine also can mean ‘to contrive,’ there’s a lot of circumstantial support for the ‘fabricate’ sense of our contemporary gin up here.
After that origin story, the second common origin states that gin up is shortened from ginger up, and comes from the practice of touching fresh ginger to certain delicate parts of a horse’s posterior before a race or auction, to agitate the horse and make it seem more lively. Strange as it might seem, this ginger up source has pretty good support: it was a practice extensive enough (or perceived to be) that it received reference in the Victorian press (the references may have already been historical, with the actual practice 50-100 years older).
Can you stand a little more convolution? I’ll give you some anyway, just to think on.
There also seems to be an entirely distinct eggcorn definition, with its own folk etymology out there. According to this reasoning, it’s not gin up, but rather jin up, and it doesn’t come from ginger or gin, but from djinn, and means roughly ‘to conjure from thin air.’ As in “Since his VP put him on the spot in the steam room, Thompson had no choice but to jin up the quarterly sales figures.” This etymology is interesting and entertaining, but unsupported. The meaning, however, is essentially the same as the main uses of gin up above, so this variant could gain ground in time. (I tried to get some comparison data from Google, but it’s nearly impossible: besides all the variant gin/ginned/ginning forms, Jin Up (or Jinup or Jin-Up) is not unheard of as a name, so sorting out relevant hits could take days.)
I’ve done my best to gin up (in the sense of fabrication) this post as little as possible. But if you accuse me of trying to gin it up (in the sense of making it a little livelier), I’m guilty as charged.