Vir-gin Version

“Ginning up” won’t make you drunk

President Barack Obama apparently enjoys “ginning up.”

While we’ve known that his wife, Michelle, enjoys a martini or two on their date nights, the news that the president himself likes to “gin up” might come as a shock. But the type of “ginning up” the president prefers has nothing to do with alcohol.

The phrase “to gin up” means “to rev up,” to incite, or to concoct, usually referring to heightening enthusiasm or interest in a topic. Obama has used it a number of times recently in reference to his push for health care reforms. In a town hall meeting in mid-July, he said, “All those folks who are out there saying, we can’t afford this; this is socialism; this will lead to government-run health care; all the folks who are getting ginned up on talk radio and some of these cable news shows, you know, I have to say that they have an effect on members of Congress.”

And during a press conference, he picked up the phrase again: “So to all—everybody who’s out there who has been ginned up about this idea that the Obama administration wants to spend and spend and spend, the fact of the matter is, is that we inherited a enormous deficit, enormous long-term debt projections.”

“Gin up” is the kind of Americanism whose use seems to wax and wane. Recently, it has been heard on talk shows that don’t even mention Obama, and seen in articles on subjects ranging from corrupt politicians to sports figures to Michael Jackson.

But you won’t find it in most of the major dictionaries—though it is in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary—and its etymology is somewhat clouded. In his Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner calls it “a late-19th-century Americanism that is barely mentioned in the OED and appears to have been missed by most American lexicographers.” He said it is “derived from a clipping of engine,” and is “increasingly common.”

The OED’s first citation is 1887, by Francis Francis Jr. in Saddle and Moccasin: “The Apaches were out to beat hell. … And they were ginning her up, and making things a bit lively, that’s a fact!” (Some regional and slang dictionaries also cite Francis as an originator of other colorful American phrases, like “keep your eyes skinned” and “you bet your sweet life.”)

The alcoholic kind of “gin” derives from the Dutch “genever,” which itself comes via a circuitous route from “juniper,” the berries used to flavor gin. And, by the way, “ginning up” also has nothing to do with the cotton gin, even though they come from the same word, the Old French “engin.”

Given all that, the president can “gin up” as much as he wants and not end up with cotton mouth.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.