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Many dictionaries say that 'upon' means 'on', for example:

Does this work for all the meanings of on?

  • a book upon history (a book on history)
  • see you upon Sunday (see you on Sunday)
  • play upon a violin (play on a violin)
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  • The usage a book upon {subject matter} was occasionally (not often) used a century ago, but rarely today. And I suggest I'll see you upon Sunday was never a natural usage. But playing upon the piano sounds fine to me, even though it's far less common than it once was. Nov 27, 2023 at 18:05
  • @FumbleFingers When I was a kid there was a character in a rhyme called Aiken Drum, who played upon a ladle, an odd choice of instrument. Nov 27, 2023 at 18:19
  • @FumbleFingers I'd argue that "play upon [instrument]" is also archaic. Hamlet: "Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me." I couldn't imagine using it today. Nov 27, 2023 at 18:30
  • @AndyBonner: I'd certainly accept that played upon the piano is "dated". But "archaic" is way too strong! It was only by way of defending a possible usage, though. I certainly wouldn't recommend learners copying it. But I found only a single instance of never upon a Sunday in Google Books - from a Caribbean writer whose English looks slightly "odd" in many other ways anyway. Nov 27, 2023 at 18:40
  • While upon is generally archaic and can mostly be replaced by "on", there are a few set expressions where you absolutely couldn't use "on". For example: to come upon [someone/something]. That would be a real faux-pas! Also: Once upon a time doesn't work with "on".
    – Billy Kerr
    Nov 27, 2023 at 18:44

1 Answer 1

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Saying, “Upon means on” does not mean that upon can serve as a substitute wherever one encounters on. In fact, what it does mean is closer to the inverse: On can serve as a substitute wherever one encounters upon.

Here’s a parallel. In slang from the 1950s and 60s, dig can mean either enjoy or understand. So when that slang term is used, it can be replaced by one or the other of enjoy or understand (with the choice of which one depending on context) as in

Hey, thanks for the gift; I really dig it,

and

You dig what I’m sayin’?

respectively. But there are usages of, for example, understand where dig would not be an acceptable substitute, like I understand some Spanish and I understand that your sister recently got married.

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  • Hey man, find a hep enough cat and I think they might just dig anything, from Spanish to marriage! But maybe the reverse is a better example: you can't always substitute "understand" for "dig." The OPs problem is that "on" is one of those words with a lot of non-interchangeable usages; "understand" has few. Nov 27, 2023 at 18:34
  • Actually, @AndyBonner, my contention is that you can always substitute one or the other of enjoy and understand for the slang dig but not vice versa. And if some cat said, “I dig Spanish,” it would be interpreted to mean that he enjoyed it, liked it, not that he understood it. Furthermore, *I dig some Spanish doesn’t work at all. Nov 27, 2023 at 18:39

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