ENGLISCH/826: Questions to Mrs. Gobbledygook (153) Dig it out or up? (SB)


153. Do you say "to dig something out" or to "dig something up"?

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

I thought I would drop you a line to let you know what I heard in an English, radio-adapted detective story the other day. The client had a question and the private investigator answered:

"I'm not sure, I can look it up, but it will take me some time to dig out that kind of information."

Well, the story went on and some minutes later the same person came out with this statement:

"I've been searching through the files of the department and I dug up some really interesting bits of information."

Do you see what irritates me? "To dig something out" or "to dig something up", which one is wrong?

Yours sincerely

Thomas B (from Harburg, Germany)


Dear Mr B

"Everything in the garden is lovely" - so the saying goes and so it is, usually. But not always. Strange and disturbing things can be found in the flower bed of metaphors as soon as you start digging. The first thing I got to do though, before planting anything is to prepare the ground.

And metaphorically speaking before I come to your question and the use of phrasal words I want to do exactly the same thing: "prepare the ground".

A marketing manager might say this to his team at the beginning of for example a new advertising campaign:

"In order to prepare the ground for this new product, we will need to change the way people think about our products."

But how do you prepare the ground? People must stop thinking about the old product. They have to be made to think, there is something wrong with it. And you have to forget the formal meaning of "to dig" or "to dig something up", but not entirely.

What is the hardest thing in the garden if you want to prepare the ground? I am going to tell you, that digging really is hard work!

Metaphorically speaking I will be digging out some of the literally uses of gardening expressions.

Most of the metaphorical uses of the word dig are found in its prepositions or adverbs, such as

dig up
dig out
dig into

and which one is right depends entirely on the context. We call this kind of verbs "phrasal verbs". But let's have a look at your example:

"I'm not sure, I can look it up, but it will take me some time to dig out that kind of information."

That means: He can find it, but it will be hard work, just like digging.

"I've been searching through the files of the department and I dug up some really interesting bits of information...

To "dig up" means in this case to find out something, often from the past. But what about this one:

"Stop, no more about it. I'm digging in my heels on this one."

This is a little more difficult, the person wants to say: I'm not going to give in, I'm going to dig in my heels and stay in this position.

Changing the subject as I feel I must, speakers of English have another use of "dig" as a phrasal verb, this time with the preposition into. As for example, when you "spend all our money" for something, then you have to "dig into your savings".

If you don't have enough money to pay your bill, you just have to dig deeper into your pocket - which means, you have to go even further into your reserves.

But after digging and preparing the ground metaphorically there is more gardening to do until "the seeds are beginning to bear fruit"

Remember the marketing manager preparing his team at the beginning of a new advertising campaign, he might continue:

"We need to sow seeds of doubt in peoples minds"

which means, that he wants to introduce the idea of doubt. A politician might say about an opposition group:

"They are sowing the seeds of revolution in this country"

And if the campaign is working, either for the marketing manager or for the politician:

"The seeds we have sown are beginning to bear fruit"

People are beginning to change their way of thinking and they are beginning to produce good results. Well, it's quite a jump from seeds to fruit, but that's nature. And not all sowing is so productive.

But not everything in the garden is quite so lovely, flowery and fruity. When we are talking about a person we might say that he or she has

"gone to seed".

In this example we would be saying that the person had stopped caring for him/herself.

"When Mrs Jones left her job and retired she really went to seed. She never went to the hairdresser and always wore old clothes."

Just to mix the metaphors, she "went to seed" means she "went downhill". "Going to seeds" is not quite the same thing as "being seedy". "Seedy" almost has the suggestion of something unpleasant, something dirty. There is something not quite right about this person or this place, or in this example, this café:

"Joe's café is such a seedy place. Just look at the sort of people who go there."

"In his article Jackson went into all the seedy hotels and cafes in that part of town."

In his report on the old part of town the journalist describes all the most disreputable and run down places in town. But whatever the journalist Jackson is doing, he is looking good:

"Whatever he's doing he is blooming."

Blooms and blossoms are those flowers we see on plants and trees. Later, if all goes according to natures plan these blossoms will become fruit. In some countries, in particular Japan, the arrival of the blossom on cherry trees is al long awaited delight.

"He's never looked better, he is blooming"

This means that he looks healthy and happy.

"She used to be quiet and shy. But since joining the tennis club she's blossomed"

Which means that she's changed for the better - she's become more outgoing, more attractive. There is a slight difference: Blooming suggests more the physical look or appearance of a person. And Blossoming more his or her character.

In order to leave the garden nice and tidy, here are the horticultural metaphors:

- We prepared the ground
- We dug out some information which was hard work
- We dug up some really interesting bits of his past
- We dug in our heals on this point
- We had to dig deeper into our pockets
- We sowed the seeds of doubt and revolution
- The seeds were beginning to bear fruit
- Someone was going to seeds
- Seedy hotels, cafés and places ...

But we are definitely blooming and I've certainly blossomed after receiving your letter. If you have any more questions, you are welcome


Mrs Gobbledygook

19. Januar 2009