“Chat up”

Verb, transitive. Talk to someone in a friendly, informal way; schmooze. Most often used to suggest or imply flattery, as in “butter up,” and especially an attempt to flirt with or seduce the chattee. “At a Union 76 in Ontario, near Riverside, he saw a guy changing a headlamp, chatted him up, and learned that he was independent.” (John McPhee, The New Yorker, February 17, 2003)/”There’s a great scene toward the end of the film ["Diner"] when Boogie (Mickey Rourke) and Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) — two kids from downtown Baltimore — are driving through Maryland’s horse country and happen upon a comely young woman on horseback. The guys pull over and chat her up, and she says her name is “Chisolm, as in the Chisolm Trail,” and then gallops away.” (New York Times, January 26, 2011). Google Ngram.

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8 responses to ““Chat up”

  1. American dictionaries cite Vanity Fair (1847) as a source for the “casual chit-chat” sense, whereas British dictionaries list it to mean flirtatious chit-chat specifically. It seems “chat up” has been in American English (with its own distinct meaning) for a while.

  2. Your definition is totally wrong — at least for the variety of British English I learned, growing up there in the 80s and 90s.

    “Chat up” specifically implies a romantic purpose to the conversation. The US equivalent would be “hit on”.

  3. Thanks for the clarification. Despite the Vanity Fair citation, I believe that widespread U.S. use of the phrase, with any meaning, is pretty recent, as the Ngram graf suggests.

    I actually remember the first time I heard the term. It was in 1977, and I was charged with editing an (anglophile) American writer who had it completely wrong, I later concluded. She used “chat up” to mean “gossip in a negative way about someone,” along the lines of “carve up.” I have not run across this meaning since.

  4. “Chatting up” is a lot stronger than flirting. As DW mentions, the best US translation would be “hit on”.

    “Chat up” meaning “be friendly” (often in a business context) must be a pure Americanism, since it wouldn’t be understood in the UK.

  5. I agree, the American use has been desexed. I’ve only ever seen it with sexual overtures intended in British contexts.

  6. I think to chat up woman/man also implies success. If a seduction was unsuccessful, this would have to be specified, i.e. He tried to chat her up, but she was having none of it.

  7. I agree that (in the UK) you would not usually use chatted up to refer to an attempt that failed. However, if the attempt is still ongoing or in the future, and therefore its success is not known, I don’t think it would normally be necessary to qualify the reference to chatting up to make clear that it has not yet been successful. It would normally be fine to say that John is over in the corner, chatting up Rebecca. You would not normally say that he is trying to chat up Rebecca unless you were trying to imply that you doubt he will be successful.

    I have heard chat up being used in the UK without sexual context. I would certainly primarily think of it as primarily being used to refer to heavy flirting with the objective of some sort of sexual or romantic outcome, but it can also be used to refer to attempts to butter someone up in an attempt to achieve some other objective, such as finding out some information that is difficult to obtain. E.g. By chatting up the sales assistant Sarah managed to discover that new shoe stocks would arrive next Tuesday. But I don’t think you would ever use it to refer to chat which is merely friendly. There must be an element of deliberately trying to choose your words in order to make them like you and therefore do something you want them to do.

  8. I agree that hit on would normally be a good synonym for the common meaning of chat up in a sexual context. However, chat up would only ever refer to the use of the spoken (or I suppose written) word. I may be wrong, but would hitting on someone also include other seduction techniques, such as touching them?

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