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sex up

phrasal verb [transitive]

to make changes to something, especially a piece of writing, in order to make it seem more significant, exciting or interesting than it originally was



'In the greatest scandal to threaten the free world yet, it appears that the BBC may have sexed up the reporting of its allegations that the Government "sexed up" its Iraq report last September. But this interpretation may itself be a sexing up of the situation.'

The Times 28th June 2003

All forms of the media – written and spoken – have been strikingly pre-occupied with this new phrasal verb during recent months. Predictably, the reason for the interest is politically charged: the term sex up has been used specifically in relation to descriptions of the British government's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The contentious claim was that the dossier contained:

'… significantly more alarming language than the intelligence assessments on which they were based' The Guardian 4th July 2003

intense media focus has accelerated use of the term outside the political arena … Newspapers and magazines have referred to "sexed-up" versions of plays

Hence the BBC's allegation that the government had deliberately "sexed up" the language of intelligence reports, referring in particular to Prime Minister Tony Blair's use of language as he indicated that Iraq could use chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so. An adjectival use – sexed-up – therefore burst into newspaper headlines across Britain from early June, most typically in the phrase sexed-up weapons dossier.

The intense media focus has accelerated use of the term outside the political arena, and there is some evidence for its use as an alternative to phrasal verbs like spice up and jazz up in reference to manipulating the written word, though always with rather disparaging overtones. Newspapers and magazines have referred to "sexed-up" versions of plays, operas and classics of English literature. In an article on the next film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Cape Times reported the makers of the film admitting that they had added new material and saying 'We sexed it up a bit.'

Back in the political arena, there has also been some evidence for an antonym. Sex down refers to making deliberate changes in order to make something seem less significant, as used by former communications director Alastair Campbell, in his defence of the weapons dossier. Campbell was reported as declaring that:

'It was, as it were, sexed down rather than up.' Reuters 26th July 2003

Background – sex up

The use of sex with the particle up is, in fact, an established phrasal verb, in existence since the 1940s and meaning, as recorded in the New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) 'to arouse or attempt to arouse someone sexually'. The new meaning of sex up that has dominated the media over past months is more likely derived from association with the adjective sexy, which can be used informally to mean 'fashionable' or 'exciting'.

However, recent use of the term has often met with disapproval, especially after the death of the British Ministry of Defence scientist Dr David Kelly, many believing that it is inappropriate to use a word with rude overtones in such a serious context.

This new sense of sex up has recently been published in a mini-dictionary of words and phrases, but it is yet to be established if this meaning is really here to stay after the controversy between the British media and government subsides.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 7th November 2003.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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