[Ads-l] punching up/down

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Thu Feb 17 01:53:27 UTC 2022

Interesting topic, Ben,. There was a figurative instance of the phrase
"punches down" in "The Times" of London in 2002. The phrase referred
to a physical punch, but the term "down" was used metaphorically. The
"up/down" framework corresponded to positions of power within a social

The article began with a description of an incident in which Irish
footballer Roy Keane was struck in the face by manager Brian Clough
who screamed "Don't pass the ball back to the goalkeeper". Keane did
not strike back at Clough because the event occurred when he was a new
untested player, and he would've lost his position. The manager was
not physically stronger or taller; instead, he had a higher social

Date: August 21, 2002
Newspaper: The Times
Newspaper Location: London, England
Article: The archaic art of hands-on management
Author: Martin Samuel
Quote Page 31, Column 6 and 7
Database: Gale - The Times Digital Archive

[Begin excerpt]
Which makes football not so much a man’s world as a boy’s. It is the
logic of the playground bully that allows a manager to strike a
player. He punches down, not up.
[End excerpt]

One might say that the instance above is only partially metaphorical.
Olbermann's use in 2006 referred to verbal jabs and not physical jabs.

Garson O'Toole

On Wed, Feb 16, 2022 at 4:57 PM Ben Zimmer <bgzimmer at gmail.com> wrote:
> This newish idiom is making its way into dictionaries, but I don't think
> we've discussed it here.
> ---
> Collins:
> https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/punch-down
> punch down: to attack or criticize someone in a less powerful position
> https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/punch-up
> punch up: to attack or criticize someone in a position of greater power
> ---
> Macmillan:
> https://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/punch-down
> punch down: to assert your authority over people who are less powerful than
> you
> [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.
> ---
> https://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/11/arts/television/11keit.html
> 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:
> ---
> https://www.npr.org/transcripts/16517458
> 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:
> ---
> https://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/weekinreview/18davidcarr.html
> 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:
> ---
> https://richardherring.com/warmingup/23/12/2010/index.html
> 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.
> ---
> https://web.archive.org/web/20101225040003/https://sinhaha.wordpress.com/2010/12/23/frankie-boyle-a-racist/
> 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:
> ---
> https://web.archive.org/web/20150805004615/https://www.louisewallis.net/richard-herring-interview/
> 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
> downwards'.
> ---
> "Punching up/down" started appearing more frequently a couple of years
> later, as in this from Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker:
> ---
> https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/color-commentary
> 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.
> ---
> --bgz
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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

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