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I'm often greeted by native speakers with "What have you been up to?" I feel this "be up to" would be almost synonymous to "be doing". But how come this means so?

paco
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You have the right meaning but wrong tense! We are asking 'What have you been doing?' In other words, what have you been doing lately, anything interesting/out of the ordinary/just the same old grind? It means update me on your life.

If you are a child though, we would normally ask this and mean 'You look guilty - what mischief have you been creating?'
Nona

Thank you for the quick answer. So the phrase's sense slightly differs depending on the age of the person you speak it to. Very interesting. However I'd like to know why "to be up to" came to have a meaning of "to undertake"?

paco
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You might try to find a source on etymology. I tried to find the answer through Google, but was not successful.
Maybe it is not really the age, more the way it is said. The 'mischief' meaning is usually more appropriate with children, but you could use it with an adult, and vice versa.

If it is said without too much emotion it is probably just a straightforward request for an update.

If it is said angrily it would mean 'mischief and you are in trouble!'

If it is said with humour/big emphasis on the 'you' it means 'mischief and come on, give me all the gossip!'
Jim

Thank you for your searching the etymon by Google. I looked for it in OED but the dictionary also didn't give anything. What it told is that the frequent use of "be up to" started around 1850 and the earliest quote given is; "I was up to nothing but lying on the sofa all the evening" (Mrs Carlye, 1856). My guess is the phrase was the one used very often in spoken language even before then but writers regarded it as a slang or vulgar expression.

paco
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Nora

Thank you for further explanation.
1) "What are you up to ?" ;a request for an update.
2) "What are you up to?" ; 'mischief and you are in trouble!'
3) "What are YOU up to?" ; 'mischief and come on, give me all the gossip!'
I think I did not get the exact meaning but I can feel something. Thank you.

paco
Hello Paco

I suspect that when Mrs Carlyle used the phrase, she meant: 'I was capable of nothing except lying on the sofa', i.e. 'I could only rise to the level of lying on the sofa'. This is still a common idiom:

'I don't think I'm up to it today' = 'I don't think I'm capable of doing it today'.

I would tentatively guess that the phrase has its origins in the literal idea of 'getting up to do something'. (The phrase 'what have you been getting up to?' also means 'what have you been up to?'.)

The 'to' would presumably be purposive.

MrP
Hello Mr P san

You see this 'san' is just a Japanese word to be added to a name of the person to whom we are speaking. Anyway I'm thankful to your help in my searching the etymon of 'UP TO' in 'what have you been up to lately'. Yeah you are right. I made a mistake in reading the OED. The writing of Mrs Carlyle's was quoted as an example of 'up to' to mean 'be capable of'. The oldest quote of using 'up to' in the sense of 'be engaged in' is "What's the old 'un up to, now?" in Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers (1837) (I cannot get what this 'un is though. Anyway the OED did not give the exact origin of the phrase 'up to' though suggesting it be made up of the adverb 'up' and the preposition 'to'. Your interpretation that the origin is 'to get up to do' sounds reasonable but my English knowledge is too little to make a decisive conclusion. The English word 'up' is very simple in form but when 'up' is used in verbal phrases, it is always a problem for me to take the exact nuance. To me, a beginner of English learning, your using 'up' in spoken language looks like something in chaos.

paco.
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