Spicks & Specks

Level up

25 July 2011

I’ve been familiar with the term レベルアップ reberu-appu for many years now, since the 1970s at least. It's one of those Japanese words coined from English roots that don't actually exist in English. It can be used either as a noun (レベルアップ reberu-appu) or as a verb (レベルアップする reberu-appu suru, ‘to level-up’ — sometimes with an  o indicating the object of the verb, as in レベルアップをする reberu-appu o suru).

The construction itself sounds peculiar according to the traditional lights of English. It's not normal to use ‘noun + up’ in English in the sense of ‘move the noun up’. In fact, I suspect レベルアップする reberu-appu was more likely modelled on Japanese レベルをあげる reberu o ageru ‘raise one’s level’ than on anything in English.

Coming across this expression when translating always required a bit of thought as to how it should be rendered. ‘Improve’? ‘Raise one's level’? ‘Raise one's game’? The Goo dictionary (Japanese-English) gives no English equivalent, providing only specific examples:

sakkā-chiimu no reberu-appu o suru
‘raise the level of a soccer team’


tairyoku no reberu-appu o hakaranakereba naranai
‘We must increase our physical strength’.

It’s not really that hard to find equivalents, but the Japanese term had a simplicity that was hard to beat. But no matter how I felt about レベルアップ reberu-appu, there was one unshakeable fact that I never lost sight of: it was not English.

Well, now it’s time to throw another piece of unquestioned ‘knowledge’ in the bin. The English language was changing (again) while I wasn’t looking, leaving me stranded high and dry and feeling rather sheepish to boot. The catalyst for this bit of reconsideration was the following:

Welcome to Google News Badges

Collect private badges for your favorite topics. The more you read, the more your badges level up (my emphasis): you can reach Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and finally Ultimate. Keep your badges to yourself — or show them off to your friends!

Having found ‘level up’ in my own native language for the first time, I first did a double-take, then I did a quick Google search and found that in the world of gaming it’s been around for a while. The Wikipedia article on Experience points has the following:

In games derived from Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), an accumulation of a sufficient number of experience points increases a character’s “level”, a number that represents a character’s overall skill and experience. To “level” or “level up“  (my emphasis) means to gain enough XP to reach the next level. By gaining a level, a character’s abilities or stats will increase, making the character stronger and able to accomplish more difficult tasks, including safely battling stronger enemies, gaining access to more powerful abilities (such as spells or combat techniques), and to make, fix or disable more complex mechanical devices, or resolve increasingly difficult social challenges.

Of course, the meaning of ‘level up’ here is rather different from Japanese, where it can be broadly used for any kind of improvement. In English it appears to have a much narrower meaning of moving up within a strict system of levels, as in the Google badge example. I suspect that a bit of sleuthing would reveal that ‘level up’ sneaked in the backdoor via Japanese influence in the gaming world.

In Japanese, the transitivity of レベルアップする reberu-appu suru is somewhat vague. It can refer to a person or people moving up a level, but can also refer to, say, moving one’s ‘physical strength’ up a level, as in the Goo example. Japanese often carries a sense of purposiveness, in that improving one’s level is a deliberate choice, although that is also not an obligatory component of the meaning. English appears to follow Japanese in this vagueness, as in the Google announcement, where the badges are referred to as intransitively ‘levelling up’.

At any rate, it was a bit of a shock to discover that an expression that I’d encountered in the Japanese world was pursuing me into my home turf. But needless to say, one can’t afford to be an old fogey about these things. What nobody had the slightest inkling about one day is on everyone’s lips the next, and despite my prior knowledge of the original, people will just pity me for not knowing that everyone now uses ‘level up’. So obviously it’s time for me to level up or risk getting left behind altogether.


Leonardo Boiko said on 28 November 2011 (11:41 pm):

The gaming world has a lot of these, most famously the “1-up” of Super Mario (to earn one extra life). I think -up has been productive for some time; a look at edict finds イメージアップ 、 コストアップ、スキルアップ (corporate: reskilling), バージョンアップ (software: upgrade), etc.

Compare GET!, as in アイテムGet! or コインGET!

If I had to guess, I’d think it’s possible that “level up” might have started in U.S. as tabletop gaming jargon, went to Japan with the videogame-RPG boom, was re-analyzed as wasei eigo thanks to the syntax (-up becoming a predicate), and only then spread outside gaming communities. But this is pure speculation.

Bathrobe said on 29 November 2011 (9:21 pm)

Relying on memory is a dangerous exercise, but my earliest recollection of video games in Japan goes back to around 1978, when Space Invaders (インベーダーゲーム) was already a runaway hit (I’m always a latecomer to trends like this). And as far as I can remember, レベルアップ was already a well-established term in Japanese at that time. My intuition tells me that レベルアップ far antedates the video-game boom in Japan.

And fortunately I have a source to back me up: the 日本語発音アクセント辞典 (日本放送協会編), first published in 1966, my copy acquired in 1975, gives an アクセント for レベルアップ. So it certainly seems to predate video games.

Sorry, I'm now using Disqus for comments. If you'd prefer not to use Disqus, please send me an email and I'll list your comments separately. Thanks!