“Levelling up” in 1873

I was reading “The Intellectual Life” by P.G. Hamerton the other day, as you do. It’s a book of hypothetical letters to some imaginary friends around the theme of being a proper Victorian intellectual (it was published in 1873.) And in one essay, I was much amused to find an unexpectedly-modern usage of the term “level up”. On a brief rummage around the internet, I find a number of people arguing whether the term first came from D&D gaming or video games a couple of decades ago. I’m sure Hamerton’s can’t be the earliest usage, but perhaps fairly early, since it was printed in scare-quotes, to make people think through the meaning of the phrase. Hamerton is talking to his fantasy recipient about how hard it is to be a modern languages student, learning a language that other people speak natively. By contrast …

The classical student has only to contend against other students who are and have been situated very much as he is situated himself. They have learned Latin and Greek from grammars and dictionaries as he is learning them, and the only natural advantages which any of his predecessors may have possessed are superiorities of memory which may be compensated by his greater perseverance, or superiorities of sympathy to which he may “level up” by that acquired and artificial interest which comes from protracted application.

(Part III, Letter VIII of The Intellectual Life by Philip Gilbert Hamerton. archive.org free book link)


  • Hi Cori,

    I went to the OED & found this. “Level up” dates at least to S. Johnson in 1763, it would seem:

    OED. level. vb. 3.b. to level up, down: to bring up, down to the level of something (expressed or implied). Also absol., and intr. for refl.

    1763 JOHNSON in Boswell 21 July, Sir, your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves. 1809 SIR J. ANSTRUTHER Sp. Ho. Commons 11 May in Cobbett Pol. Reg. 20 May 754 Another party..whose object was to level down all public men to their own very humble state. 1873 HAMERTON Intell. Life III. viii. (1876) 111 To which he may level up. 1897 MORLEY Speech 16 Jan., To level up the beer and spirit duties.

  • Interesting, thanks, Mark! How funny that it takes 130 years to produce four published examples … can’t imagine that kind of pace nowadays. (And I know we might find others with a time-limited text search through Project Gutenberg, but still.)

  • Hi Cori,

    I hand’t realized that such a search might be done through the whole of Project Gutenberg’s texts. Very interesting. And very useful. I’ll poke around there a bit and learn more about it. I’ve only just now discovered that their books (many anyway) can be downloaded in formats ready-made for things like the Kindle.

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