The Meaning of Up In The Air: What It Is and How To Use It

This article will give you all of the information you need on the phrase up in the air, including its definition, usage, origin, and more!

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What does the phrase up in the air mean?

Collins English Dictionary defines the phrase “up in the air” as meaning something that is still undecided or uncertain, or an unsettled matter that has not been completely planned, settled, or locked in. This informal phrase in both British English and American English can also be used to mean highly agitated or excited, but this is a less common usage. Its most popular definition is “uncertain, unsettled, or undecided.”

This is not to be confused with the phrase “up in arms,” which means angry or rebellious, often in protest, according to Know Your Phrase. This phrase implies that someone is armed, or has a weapon and is prepared for combat.

This should also not be confused with the phrase “to throw one’s hands up in the air.” This phrase means to give up and admit one cannot improve a given situation, according to Merriam-Webster. The phrase “put one’s hands up in the air” can also mean to dance and party, popularized by numerous songs that use this meaning.

Up In The Air is also a 2009 film directed by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, according to IMDb. The film stars George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick, and follows Clooney as he plays a traveling businessman whose lifestyle is threatened by a new love interest. In the film, he is literally up in the air on a plane, and his life is figuratively up in the air because his future is uncertain with his job and love interest. This film makes use of both the literal and figurative meanings of the phrase.

What is the origin of the phrase up in the air?

According to The Free Dictionary, this idiom has been used since the mid-1700s as the phrase “in the air.” The “up” was added in the first half of the 1900s. Idioms Online states that the exact origin of the phrase “up in the air” is unknown, but it may stem from or allude to a coin toss, since one would not know the results when the coin is still up in the air. However, this origin has not been proven.

What are synonyms for the phrase up in the air?

There are many synonyms for the phrase up in the air, according to Thesaurus and other dictionary apps. These words and phrases are below, with definitions provided by Oxford Languages.

  • Uncertain – Not known, definite, or reliable.
  • Undecided – Not determined, settled, or resolved.
  • Undetermined – Not known, decided, or settled.
  • Tentative – Not certain, fixed, or confirmed; provisional.
  • Unresolved – Not decided upon, as it relates to a problem, question, or dispute.
  • Unsettled – Unstable, not yet resolved or decided.
  • Pending – Awaiting a firm decision or settlement.
  • Iffy – Doubtful or full of uncertainty.
  • Doubtful – Uncertain but improbable.
  • Chancy – Subject to changes that may be unpredictable.
  • Indeterminate – Not known, defined, or established.
  • Unconfirmed – Not locked in or known as truthful or valid.
  • Wavering – Unsteady or unreliable, undecided between options or courses of action.
  • Variable – Inconsistent or liable to changing.
  • Unsure – Not confident, certain, or fixed.
  • Hesitant – Tentative or unsure.

How can up in the air be used in a sentence?

The phrase up in the air can be used in a variety of different scenarios in the English language. It is a fairly common phrase, and is used frequently in everyday speech. In this first example, two coworkers are discussing their plans for the holidays.

Coworker 1: The family and I are going up the mountains to ski, how about yourself?

Coworker 2: It’s all a bit up in the air at the moment. We usually go to my mom’s house, but she just moved across the country, and with the new baby we’re not sure we can make the trip. She might come out here instead.

Coworker. That’s fair. Well, I’m sure it will all work out. Make some new traditions!

Here, the first coworker uses the phrase up in the air to mean that her holiday plans are uncertain. She usually does the same thing every year, but with the advent of a new baby and her mother now living farther away, her plans are uncertain. 

Next, a young girl is very excited for her first day of kindergarten next week, and is asking her father a barrage of questions.

Young Girl: Will my classroom have beanbag chairs? Will we learn about dinosaurs? How long will recess be? How many recesses do we get?

Dad: Honey, I’m not sure. All of those things are up in the air; we don’t know yet.

Young Girl: Will I like my teacher? Will I make new friends?

Dad: Those two I’m certain of. You will definitely like your teacher, and you will definitely make new friends.

Here, the father uses the phrase up in the air to tell his daughter that there are a lot of things about her new school that he is uncertain of. In contrast, he is certain that she will enjoy her new school, as well as her new teacher and new friends.

Overall, the phrase up in the air means uncertain or undecided. This phrase is often used in regard to plans or future arrangements. The less common use of the phrase can mean excited or angry. This idiom can be used in a variety of circumstances to describe uncertainties.