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What Does "Bow Up" Mean?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
September 22, 2011

Last week during the football game between LSU and Mississippi State, we kept hearing an ESPN announcer say the team needed to "bow up" (with "bow" pronounced like "beau" or the "bow" in "bow and arrow.")

I hadn't heard the phrase before and thought it might mean something like "man up" or "get tough." However, Jesse Sheidlowereditor-at-large at the Oxford English Dictionary, kindly told me on Twitter that the entry in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) defines "bow up" as "to assert oneself, stand up to." DARE also noted that the phrase is "Southern," which got me wondering how Southern. I asked the people who frequent the Grammar Girl Facebook page to tell me where they live if they have heard or used the phrase, and here's the resulting map:

bow up dialect map

A blue pin represents one person who reported hearing or using the phrase, a red pin represents one person who reported having never heard the phrase, and the one purple pin is a person who heard the phrase in North Carolina, but only from someone who had moved there from Atlanta.

"Bow up" is obviously a Southern term, although a few people in the South hadn't heard it. One person in Maine and one person in Southern California reported hearing the phrase, and their outlier status makes me wonder if they moved to their current locations from the South or hear "bow up" from Southern friends living in their area (or perhaps even misunderstood the question and heard the phrase on TV).

Here are some explanations my Facebook friends offerred that are more colorful than the DARE entry:

Glenda:  "It kind of means to take an aggressive stand toward someone. I heard this just yesterday when someone said, 'He bowed up to the guy before many words were exchanged between the two.' Picture a guy standing with his chest out, arms hanging like a set of parentheses, and the whole body leaning in slightly toward the opposition. That's bowing up."

Hilary: "'Bow up' can also describe a person who is about to fight someone else. Example: He got the red ass and was all bowed up to punch that guy."

Emily: "It comes from the idea of getting ready to fight, where a guy throws back his shoulders and his chest bows outward. So 'bow up' is equivalent to 'start a fight.' "

Lynn: "[It] means to act all tough like you want to start something (like a scrap/fight) -- like an animal that puffs all up to appear larger to an enemy."

You can read all the great comments on the post at the Facebook page.

Mignon Fogarty is the author of Grammar Girl's 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know

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