The origin of 'levelling up'

Levelling up, the term used in the UK the describe the redressing of the politcal and economic inequality of the north / south divide, sounds unqiuely modern. In a world where the langauge of life can take on a game like quality, think, “beast mode” and “noob”, it is unsurprising, albeit admittedly naive, that I was of the belief that “levelling up” related to gaming too.

I assumed it had been conjurred up by some comms executive who wanted to evoke games much in the way branding types argue their products can “take you to the next level” or, even more, bluntly “level up your game”. Reducing inequality to a sound bite that comes across as brash and somewhat derogatory, is also typically Johnsonian, and so in that sense the glove fit all the better.

Then, while reading The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) recently I came across a passage in which Orwell, while lamenting the efforts of the middle class to impart their way of life on the working class, uses the same turn of phrase:

And then there is the outer-suburban creeping Jesus, a hangover from the William Morris period, but still surprisingly common, who goes about saying ’Why must we level down? Why not level up?’ and proposes to level the working class ’up’ (up to his own standard) by means of hygiene, fruit-juice, birth-control, poetry, etc.

Orwell was not a gamer. And, as it turns out, there are references to levelling up that date back much further than the interwar period.

In Hansard, the ledger of the discussion that takes place in the British Parliament, there is talk of levelling up with respect to the relative position of religions in Ireland. This was from the 1860s. However it doesn’t appear to be term that finds its origins in religion either. In the 1700s there are consistent references to “levelling up” with respect to gardening and agriculture. In this context to level up is to make land flatter and therefore more useful.

The origins of expressions and coloquialisms is such an interesting and varied topic. Somewhat unsurprisingly, for English at least, the root is often agriculture and seafaring.

Hi there, thanks for stopping by!

My name is Dan, I'm a product manager and entrepreneur living and working in London. Check out my blog archive or read more about me.