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I saw most of the dictionaries say about the same:

from the first or elementary principles, methods, etc. to the last or most advanced; completely; thoroughly (Collins with some examples from newspapers and books)

From the most basic level to the highest level; completely: designed the house from the ground up; learned the family business from the ground up. (Heritage)

But EnglishCentral.com says the definition of the phrase is:

starting with nothing: "The young partners built a business FROM THE GROUND UP."

I feel EnglishCentral's is more accurate. Does only "up" mean "to the highest level"?

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I don't think that EnglishCentral.com is more accurate (in fact, I think it's less accurate); however, I'd agree that that definition, "start with nothing", is easier to understand. –  Damkerng T. Jun 18 at 4:00

2 Answers 2

Most would interpret the idiom as EnglishCentral has described it; it's commonly used in the same manner as "(to start) from scratch" or "(to start) from the beginning".

Or, as Wiktionary describes it (emphasis added)...

"from the ground up" (idiomatic); From the beginning; starting with the basics, foundation, or fundamentals.

"A bright, ambitious kid just out of technical school, learning railroading from the ground up."

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The term is meant to convey the image of creating a structure, such as a building. The ground is the foundation, and up refers to adding to that foundation until the project is complete.

The meaning is to do something completely, starting with the most basic and adding all the details.

Similar phrases are from scratch, which means using basic ingredients and not partially prepared components. An example is to make a cake from flour, sugar, oil, flavoring, milk, rather than from a mix.

A related phrase is from top to bottom which means thoroughly, but does not have the same connotation of starting from the beginning and progressing through the entire project.

All of these phrases are analogies and can be applied to tasks that cover a wide range of activities, including things that have no physical components.

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