Sunday, April 11, 2021

Idiom of the day: soup up

A clue in yesterday’s Newsday crossword — five letters, “Jazzes (up)” — prompted me to (finally) write a post about soup up.

My guess about an origin: perhaps a way to describe the adding of soup to a meal. I imagine a seedy little café, circa 1927, adding a bowl of soup to, say, the beef stew, roll, and coffee it usually serves its patrons: “We souped up the dinner for ya, Bill. Eat hearty.” But it’s tough to guess correctly about these things.

Merriam-Webster gives these definitions for soup up:

to increase the power, efficiency, or performance of

to heighten the impact of : to make more exciting or colorful
It’s the origin of the verb that’s surprising. According to M-W, soup up comes from soup, “drug injected into a racehorse to improve its performance.” M-W dates soup up to 1924. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the verb to 1931. The OED dates soup-as-drug to 1909, citing the 1909 ‌Webster’s New international : “any material injected into a horse with a view to changing its speed or temperament.” The OED suggests the prefix super- as an influence.

And now I recall that in The Asphalt Jungle (dir. John Huston, 1950), “soup” is what the criminal gang calls the nitroglycerine they use to blow up a bank vault. Sure enough, the Oxford English Dictionary has soup as nitroglycerine or gelignite, with a first citation from 1902. I like this 1903 citation, from Isaac Kahn Friedman’s The Autobiography of a Beggar: “Louis learned how ter make de ‘soup’ from a gang of ‘yeagers’ dat used ter blow de doors off country banks.” Yeagers are more commonly known as yeggs: that is, safecrackers.

And crackers remind me of soup, and of the imaginary café. If I keep going on with this post, it’ll soon be time for lunch. There will be soup.

[The Autobiography of a Beggar is not an autobiography. It’s a book of what look like colorful stories by a Chicago journalist.]

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