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What does the adverb up in the idiom:

Clean up after yourself.

mean ?

  • Best google such expressions before asking as most answers are found online ; idioms.thefreedictionary.com/clean+up – Ronald Sole Jun 14 at 23:02
  • The expression "clean after yourself" doesn't make sense, even though clean is a synonym of clean up. This is the reason that had me wondering over the meaning of the adverb up in the context above. – Norbert Jun 14 at 23:40
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The phrase clean up after itself means:

[Merriam-Webster]
: to make a place clean after it has been left dirty or messy by (someone)
// His mother is always cleaning up after him.
// You should learn to clean up after yourself.


The use of up can be used as an intensifier—and it's defined as an adverb in this sense:

6 b —used as an intensifier
// clean up the house

So, you can simply clean the house or you can clean up the house. The former is just the general action of cleaning, while the latter specifically means to remove visible dirt and grime (or disorder).


However, the use of up in the idiom likely comes from the following type of usage:

Pick up garbage.

So, by extrapolation, it could be a shortened version of something like:

Clean up your mess after you made it yourself.
→ Clean up after yourself.


There are related phrases that have the same general meaning.

Pick up after (someone):

: to clean the mess created by (someone)
// You have to pick up after yourself if you make a mess.
// His mother still picks up after him.

Tidy up after (someone):

: to clean up someone else's messes
// I'm tired of always tidying up after you.

In both cases, it could be a figurative interpretation of literally picking something up and then disposing of it or putting it into proper order.

With the uses of pick up and tidy up, clean up probably followed suit—assuming it didn't simply come about along with the others.


Note that there is one last meaning of clean up that doesn't involve after yourself, but might still be related in some respects:

2 : to become free of drug or alcohol addiction
// I always cleaned up for tours. … By the end of the tour, I'm perfectly clean and should have stayed sober.
— Keith Richards

The same expression can also be used in other ways—to mean get your act together, in a sentence like the following (which is my own):

You look awful. You really need to clean yourself up.

  • Exactly what I was looking for. Thank you. – Norbert Jun 15 at 9:13
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"Clean up" is an idiom. The whole phrase is saying something like "Do not make a mess" or "leave this room clean when you are finished with what you are doing."

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