Oral history on "uptight" (1966)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Fri Dec 30 08:14:44 UTC 2005

On 12/30/05, Wilson Gray <hwgray at gmail.com> wrote:
> Uh, my point was actually the loss of the *positive* meaning. My earliest
> memory of the use of "up tight" - ca.1962 - is that it could be either
> positive or negative, according to context. The earliest negative use that  I
> can actually *document* without doing any research elsewhere than in my
> memory occurs in the 1965 movie, _The Pawnbroker_, when the black robber
> quietly says to the white pawnbroker, "Cool it, baby. Don't get up tight."
> But this negative use was hardly new. Of course, then-Little Stevie Wonder's
> recording using the phrase with the positive meaning was also released in
> 1965 and probably influenced a far larger number of slang-users than did
> _The Pawnbroker_, a B&W "art" movie destined to become a "classic."
> Likewise, this positive usage was not new. So, we know that the loss of the
> positive meaning had to have started ca.1965, given the ease with which
> anyone can show that the phrase was still being used with both polarities
> during that year.

Ah, OK. Sorry for misconstruing your argument. I'll have to check out
_The Pawnbroker_ (which was actually first screened in June 1964 at
the Berlin International Film Festival, according to IMDb).

Still, even if the 'tense, on-edge' sense goes back a few years
earlier than Warhol's "Up-Tight" series, is there any further evidence
that Methedrine users (and their cohorts) were responsible for the
shift in usage?

--Ben Zimmer

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