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I was reading R.Jordan's "The Wheel of Time". I've faced the following sentence: "This time I can't make up or down out of any of it". I can't understand it.

Some previous sentences to make it clearer:

She shook her head. "The strongest images around the gleeman are a man — not him — juggling fire, and the White Tower, and that doesn't make any sense at all for a man. The strongest things I see about the big, curly-haired fellow are a wolf, and a broken crown, and trees flowering all around him. And the other one — a red eagle, an eye on a balance scale, a dagger with a ruby, a horn, and a laughing face. There are other things, but you see what I mean. This time I can't make up or down out of any of it." She waited then, still grinning, until he finally cleared his throat and asked.

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It's an idiom to mean "I can't understand any of it".

The more common variation is "I can't make heads or tails out of it", which you can read a bit about here.

  • Your version (plural + or) sounded unusual to me, so I checked out this NGram. I've always used singular + nor, but it seems singular + or is far more common. – FumbleFingers May 31 '16 at 15:20
  • @FumbleFingers - Interesting! Everything but plural+or sounds very off to me, especially singular+nor. Maybe it's a regional thing? – Sarah May 31 '16 at 15:51
  • I'm guessing the or / nor distinction is more an "age" thing (so being a bit long in the tooth myself, I'm more familiar with the latter). And the NGram seems to leave no doubt that the plural forms are far more recent. I suspect they arose from a combination of mishearings plus people supposing that it's an allusion to not being able to tell whether the face of a (tossed) coin is heads or tails. But I'd be pretty sure it's more a matter of This is a strange animal! I can't tell if I'm looking at its head or its rear end! – FumbleFingers May 31 '16 at 16:02
  • @FumbleFingers - Fair point! I did/do associate the phrase with a coin toss. Also, it's interesting that if you expand your NGram to 2008 (as high as it goes) it looks like the singular version is coming back into favor. – Sarah May 31 '16 at 16:15
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    I agree that "I can't make heads or tails out of it" is commonly used in the US. I don't recognize the singular version. – user3169 May 31 '16 at 21:43
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In Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan frequently uses phrases that are similar to modern English but slightly different, because the stories are fantasies set in another world. Thus "can't make up or down out of it" is not likely to be heard in day-to-day English, but it is close enough to the well used "can't make heads or tails of it" that the reader understands what is meant.

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