Time to gin up an explanation

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.

About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small businesses meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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16 Responses to Time to gin up an explanation

  1. Bertie says:

    My mom used “gin up” all the time. She was born in 1916 in Iowa. She meant to agitate or stir up (usually trouble). I go with the “ginger” derivation.


  2. Dan says:

    This might be a speculation, but in the 1970 movie “Waterloo” with Christopher Plummer playing the Duke of Wellington, and Rod Steiger playing Napoleon, there is a scene when the British troops are waiting behind a hill for the approach of the French troops who are marching up to mount an attack. One of the British officers says, “Gin up boys, get it while you can, the French will have it out of you in a minute anyway”. So they would literally drink some gin, to make themselves relax, and maybe a little bolder. So “gin up” means to make oneself, or something, ready for the coming fight, in that context. To prepare is to gin up.


    • An interesting tangent, Dan, but doesn’t seem to be the relevant definition covered here.
      It would also be pretty dicey if we took a script from the 1970s very seriously when we’re digging into etymologies 100 or more years older.
      Thanks for the note, though! The ‘Waterloo’ reference might prove useful someday.


      • Dan says:

        Just as a note, that script from the movie was based on some statements that were actually said in 1815 at Waterloo, and based on historical research on habits that were practiced in the British regiments of the time. So it still could be a possible origin of the phrase, from practices in the British army to take some gin before battle.


  3. Moose says:

    This is really interesting. In my world among scientists, I hear the term all the time, but in the “improvisation” context you describe as rare. As in “I’ve got no idea how to do this experiment, but I’ve got some PVC pipe, some zip ties, and a clipboard so I’m sure I can gin up something.”


    • Every group of specialists (such as scientists, in your case) develops its own jargon. Perhaps that usage will become common in that group (or already has). The beauty of our sloppy language is that this can happen, and then keep happening, in both directions. Who knows — that use might someday spill back over and become common across all speakers.


  4. Pieter B, FCD, OMG says:

    I had always heard it in the sense of cobbling something together, as in your fan belt illustration; the derivation to me was obvious, from “engineer” in the Tudor sense: an inventor, designer, maker of military engines (“the engineer hoist with his own petard”).

    Consequently, the use of it to mean “excite” seemed wrong, but the consensus is that it’s been common for nearly two centuries, but the sense of building something, particularly in an improvisational manner, is older.

    In researching it I ran across this derivation of “gin” at etymonline.com: “machine for separating cotton from seeds,” 1796, American English, used earlier of other machineries, especially of war or torture, from Middle English gin “ingenious device, contrivance” (c. 1200), from Old French gin “machine, device, scheme,” shortened form of engin (see engine). The verb in this sense is recorded from 1789. Related: Ginned; ginning. Middle English had ginful “ingenious, crafty; guileful, treacherous” (c. 1300).

    It would seem that even back then the “mad scientist” trope was prevalent.


  5. Chris Jensen says:

    I learned it from my mom 50+ years ago. She may have picked it up from when she was in the US Marine Corps 1943-1946. She used it to mean “to fabricate or create, or cobble something together” as in “He ginned up a receipt as they did not have any preprinted receipts.” The “PVC pipe, a clipboard, & zip ties” suggestion also works very well. She always used to to mean something created for a need and not as a means to falsify anything. I’ve never heard of the “liquored up” or “excite” usage. I’m not sure if she spelled it “djinn”. She was very precise in her spelling and word usage, did the NY Times crossword in ink.

    From my time in the US Navy I learned that to gundeck something as in “he gundecked the inspection form” was to fill it out later with possibly falsified information rather than accurately at the time it was supposed to be filled out. The “Thompson in the steam room” example fits more accurately, to me, in this definition.


  6. rstthomas says:

    I heard it as: “to Djin up” as in to call up a genie to make something magical happen.


  7. Gingering a horse is not as archaic as this would lead one to believe. Ginger salve is still available if you know where to look for as little as 4-5 dollar a bottle from less reputable horse supply companies. So yeah, that would have still been very well known when the term came to popularity, sadly.


  8. Ice Nine Steve says:

    My experience in business activities dating back to the 1970s was in using the term “gen up”, which meant to generate – as in “Let’s gen up a plan to address the high non-conformance rate.” It wasn’t until the 2000s that I ever heard it as “gin up”.


    • I’ve heard that use, too, usually in a business (or office) context. Do you know of something called the “recency illusion?” That’s something we have to be careful not to fall victim to here, since ‘gin up’ is documented at least back to the 19th century.


  9. Paul says:

    I’ve always understood the term “gin up” to mean to “produce (from naught)” as opposed to “fabricate (as a falsity).” For example: “I had to gin up the courage to take a shot of tequila.”


  10. Warls says:

    Here’s the real derivation: GINNED came fron djinned (romanized) jinn (arabic?) Or ginn (?) From the original word meaning genie…Jinn…a magical creature from Alladin etc. Its about making things magically appear from nowhere.


    • Do you have any evidence of this at all? I’ve never seen any.
      The longer I’ve looked at this one, the more I lean toward splitting the difference between the “engine” (impelling) sense and the “ginger” (horse trading) sense.
      The genie (djinn) sense makes a nice story, but it seems to be entirely a modern “back etymology” created to justify an origin that some people wish was true. But isn’t.


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