Up In Arms – Meaning, Origin


Someone who is “up in arms” about something is angry; they are upset, perhaps even infuriated.

Example: Larry had to go to hospital because he was very ill. He soon learned that he needed surgery, but it would cost a lot of money to have that done. Larry’s insurance was supposed to help cover the cost, however, he’s having some problems with his health insurance company right now. He and his family are up in arms about this whole ordeal.

In other words, this family was very upset.

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
1. Having a chip on one’s shoulder
2. Having a bone to pick with someone

The Origin Of ‘Up In Arms’

The word “arm” can be used when referring to weapons. For example, “firearms” refer to guns. This word can also mean someone is equipped with a weapon. For instance, someone might say “he’s armed!” meaning he has a weapon of some kind on him. There are even phrases, such as “arm yourself” or “at arms, men!” that essentially mean to prepare a weapon, getting it ready for combat.

So why is the word “arm” used in such a way? Really, what do arms have to do with weapons? It’s not entirely clear why this is. Obviously, in order to use weapons like swords, clubs, and so on, having arms would be necessary to wield them. So maybe the meaning derives from that. Or perhaps weapons are seen as an “add-on” to the arm, like an extension of it, so the word developed its meaning from that. I don’t know, but anyways, let’s talk about this phrase now.

A long time ago, if a person was “up in arms,” it meant that they had weapons equipped and were prepared to fight. We can see this specific phrase make an appearance in different plays from the late 1500s. For example, one of those plays is King Richard III, by William Shakespeare. It’s believed that this play was written around the year 1591. There’s a part from it that reads:

“March on, march on, since we are up in arms;

If not to fight with foreign enemies,

Yet to beat down these rebels here at home.”

Clearly, if people are marching with weapons equipped and they’re ready to fight their enemies, there is probably anger involved. So it looks like this phrase started out originally referring to “angry people with weapons,” and then later the “weapons” part was dropped and it became an idiom that simply meant “an angry person.”

So a question to ask is when did it become an idiom? That I do not know.

Example Sentence(s)

  1. After his car broke down in the middle of the street, Winston was up in arms because he knew he was going to be late for his brother’s wedding.

Note: This site has idioms and the meanings of common sayings, hundreds of them in fact. There’s a big list you can check out on here, if you want to.

Also, on an unrelated note, I want to mention that a phrase’s origin is not always clear. Kinda like the one talked about on this page. So when this happens, I’ll try to provide an explanation that touches on how an idiom may have originated. Or, if not that, there will usually a quote of it for you to see. The purpose of these quotes is to give an approximation for how old the expression is.

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