[Ads-l] punching up/down

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Wed Feb 16 21:57:20 UTC 2022

This newish idiom is making its way into dictionaries, but I don't think
we've discussed it here.

punch down: to attack or criticize someone in a less powerful position
punch up: to attack or criticize someone in a position of greater power
punch down: to assert your authority over people who are less powerful than
[no corresponding entry for "punch up" in the relevant sense]

In boxing, "punching up" can refer to taking on an opponent who is taller
or in a higher weight class, and "punching down" is for an opponent who is
shorter or in a lower weight class.

The earliest figurative usage I've found is from a 2006 New York Times
profile of Keith Olbermann, whose MSNBC show often targeted Bill O'Reilly
of Fox News.

New York Times, July 11, 2006
"You don't punch down," Mr. Olbermann said. "If you're in my position," he
added, referring to his initially microscopic ratings next to Mr.
O'Reilly's, "you punch upwards."

Similarly, in a 2007 NPR interview with Olbermann:

NPR, Morning Edition, Nov. 23, 2007
[David Folkenflik:] Off the air, Olbermann explains why he takes such
delight in getting a rise out of a guy who draws three times the audience
he does.
[Keith Olbermann:] You punch upwards, not down. If I'm Bill O'Reilly, and
Keith Olbermann attacks me or criticizes me or analyzes what I'm saying, my
reaction is, who?

>From a 2009 David Carr NYT column:

New York Times, Oct. 18, 2009
People who work in political communications have pointed out that it is a
principle of power dynamics to "punch up" -- that is, to take on bigger
foes, not smaller ones.

These days "punching up/down" is often heard in the context of comedy. The
earliest comedy-related examples I've found come from late 2010, when there
was some controversy over the standup act of British comedian Frankie
Boyle. On Dec. 23, two of his fellow comedians, Richard Herring and Paul
Sinha, chimed in online:

Richard Herring (blog post), Dec. 23, 2010
Though there are no rules, comedy, I feel, should be siding with the weak
and the oppressed and punching either inwards (at the comedian him or
herself) or upwards (at the powerful or the oppressors). Punching downwards
is just bullying.
Paul Sinha (blog post), Dec. 23, 2010
Frankie is finally punching up and not punching down and I for one am not
in the least bit offended.

Richard Herring elaborated in an interview a few weeks later:

Louise Wallis, Jan. 18, 2011
[Richard Herring:] For me, if I'm doing a joke I’d want to be on the side
of the weak punching the strong, rather than the strong bullying the
weak... There’s plenty of ways you can be offensive without 'punching

"Punching up/down" started appearing more frequently a couple of years
later, as in this from Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker:

New Yorker, Sept. 23, 2013
To modern joke critics, the key distinction between a good joke and a bad
one is supposed to be between "punching up" and "punching down" -- taking a
cheap shot at someone who is already weaker than you.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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