We in the Americas have seen the increasing popularity in recent years of a confection that English knows as tiramisu. Oxforddictionaries.com explains that it is ‘an Italian dessert consisting of layers of sponge cake soaked in coffee and brandy or liqueur with powdered chocolate and mascarpone cheese.’ English speakers usually stress the next-to-the-last syllable, but the Italian original is tiramisù, with an accent mark that, as in the Spanish transliteration tiramisú, indicates which syllable to stress when a word doesn’t conform to the standard accentuation pattern its spelling would call for. The Italian term now functions as a noun, but it originated as the imperative “Tirami su.” A Spanish speaker can easily see that the first part is equivalent to tírame ‘pull me,’ and only the end of the phrase is in doubt. The su evolved from Latin sursum, which meant, as does its Italian descendant, ‘up, upwards,’ so “Tirami su” means literally ‘Pull me up’ or ‘Pick me up.’ An Italian speaker hears the name of this dessert as something to ‘pick me up’ when a little extra energy would hit the spot.

English does the same sort of thing as Italian when it uses pick-me-up as a noun meaning ‘a restorative, tonic, bracer,’ and in particular ‘a stimulating drink.’ English also uses the expression less specifically, as when Shelly Banjo wrote in The Wall Street Journal on January 8, 2011: “The artwork will then be donated to a school, synagogue or other public place in need of an aesthetic pick-me-up.”

In lieu of pick-me-up English has sometimes used pickup and even picker-upper, as in this fruit juice ad in the July 8, 1940, issue of Life magazine:

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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