The Way We Speak (English) Now: Hooking Up

“Hooking up” is a phrasal verb – which means (as all my ESL students know) it is an expression containing a verb and a preposition.

Once upon a time is a phrase we use to start fairy tales. It was also used in the very first Star Wars film, in the opening captions where we learn that the story takes place “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away. Sometimes we use “once upon a time” ironically to mean “a not so long time ago in the past,” as in the following:

Once upon a time “hooking up” was an innocuous expression used in the following way:

John: My flight was delayed, so I won’t be able to meet you at the breakfast. I should get to the conference by noon.

Kevin: That’s fine. There’s a lunch break at noon. We’ll hook up then.

John: Great! I’m looking forward to it.

In this context, “hook up” is very similar to “meet up.” Here’s another example, just to make the point:

Sarah: So did you have a chance to talk to John at the conference?

Kevin: No, his flight was delayed, and then he got stuck in traffic, and I was on the panel in the afternoon. We never managed to hook up.

However, in recent years the expression “hook up” or “hooking up” has taken on another meaning, which has just about supplanted the previous meaning. Here is an example of how you are likely to hear it used:

John: I really like Sarah, but I think she’s dating Kevin isn’t she?

Beth: Dating? I don’t know about that. They may have hooked up a couple of times back in college, but I think now they’re just friends.

John: Friends with benefits?

Beth: Maybe once upon a time. I doubt it in the present. Kevin lives with his girlfriend, and I hear she keeps him on a pretty tight leash. Honestly, I doubt that Sarah and Kevin are more than co-workers.

John: Wow. I don’t think I’d be too comfortable with that history if I was Kevin’s girlfriend!

Beth: Oh c’mon! What happens in college stays in college.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, here’s the explanation: To “hook up” with someone is to have casual, commitement free sex with that person. If you search on google, you’ll find articles about  “hook up culture” – the idea that traditional dating may be dead, and instead we’ve moved to place where people hook up casually without long term commitment although feelings and emotional bonds may (or may not) develop over time.

HOWEVER, there is still some possible debate about what “hooking up” means. It might be sexual, but may or may not include actual sex. Here is a clip from the television show Grownish. Grownish follows the adventures of Zoey Johnson during her first year of college as she begins to navigate life after high school.

Vocabulary note: Zoey defines “hooking up” as sexual, but not necessarily as the act of sex itself. She uses the term “making out.” Making out  means passionate kissing that probably involves tongues (what we call “French kissing” in the United States). It might involve a little more. Here are a couple of examples of making out.

Beth: Oh my God! Sarah got drunk at my party last night, and I found her in the kitchen making out with John.

Kevin: Good for her. I hope they get together.

Beth: It’s a nightmare. She doesn’t remember it. She doesn’t like him that way, and he has an enormous crush on her.

On a final note, keep in mind that both “hooking up” and “making out” are used in other ways that are completely different and have nothing to do in any way, shape, or form with sex! Here are some examples:

To hook something up means to set up some electronic equipment. Usually this involves connecting various cables. The act of making these connections is “hooking something up.”

Sarah: I called John last night and asked him to come over because I need some help hooking my new Mac up to the internet.

Beth: How did that go?

Sarah: It’s been weird with him ever since the party.

To hook someone up can also mean to connect someone to something that he or she is looking for. Often, but not always, this involves hooking someone up using special connections, or hooking someone up to something illegal such as drugs.

Kevin: Maybe you need to do something to really impress Sarah.

John: What could I possibly do to impress Sarah?

Kevin: Maybe you need to do something really big. Make her an offer she can’t refuse. Get tickets to see Beyonce at Coachella or something.

John: Ha! They’re already sold out!

Kevin: I know a guy that can hook you up.

John: Even if your guy could hook me up with tickets, they’d probably cost an arm and a leg.

Make out – can also mean to understand or decipher something

Kevin: Hey ‘bro how’s it going?

John: Kevin? I can hardly make out what you’re saying. We have a terrible connection.

Kevin: I’m hanging up. I’ll call you right back.


Kevin: So how did it go at Sarah’s apartment?

John: I can’t make her out at all. At the party she seemed totally into me, but last night I got the feeling she has pushed me permanently into the friend zone.

I hope this clears things up! Always remember that context is everything! If your boss invites to lunch because he thinks the two of you should “hook up” outside of work, it’s not necessarily a sexual proposition! People still use the phrase to simply mean “meet up.” Then again, you might want to know where the exits are and bring some pepper spray.