Has someone ever told you they just got “caught up in” something? Did you look around for a net or snare of some kind, a bit bewildered when you saw nothing of the sort nearby?! Like many phrases we explore here at The Word Counter, caught up is an idiomatic expression, with a figurative meaning that’s not necessarily easy to determine right off the bat. Let’s explore the definition of this popular phrase.
What Does Caught Up Mean?
Although caught up has a different meaning as a phrase (technically, it’s a phrasal verb, like the expression hang in there) than the word caught itself, it is helpful to think of the definition of caught to understand the expression. Caught is the past tense of the verb catch, meaning primarily “to capture or seize,” “to entangle in or get entangled” and “to grasp or hold on to.” Of course, when the verb is used on its own, it’s meant literally, right? You catch a fish in a net or on your line. You catch a baseball in your glove. You catch someone who is starting to fall, or a thief in the act of robbing a store.
But knowing that idioms have figurative meanings, to understand the idiomatic phrase catch up, you need to think about how these meanings of catch/caught could be broadened and used more metaphorically—how else one could be entangled or captured.
When used with the preposition in, as in the introduction above, the phrase caught up can mean two things:
- To be involved in a situation, usually one that is difficult or confusing, even scandalous—and often one you didn’t intend to be a part of
- To be so focused on and excited about something you can’t really think about anything else; to be enthralled and, thus, distracted
When used in these ways, the phrase is almost always in the past tense and followed by in. It can be preceded, however, by a couple of different verbs and even verb tenses. For example, you can get caught up in something or be caught up in something; just like you could have been caught up in something or gotten caught up in something.
Let’s look at some example sentences using the phrase caught up with the preposition in to make all this information clearer:
- I’ve been so caught up in my new relationship that I haven’t really been talking to or seeing my friends that much, so I didn’t realize one of them was going through a difficult time.
- There’s always so much tension at my office between my coworkers. I try to stay out of it, but recently I got all caught up in their drama.
- At the wedding, everyone was so caught up in listening to the bride and groom’s vows, that they didn’t realize a storm was rolling up—and fast. No one had their umbrellas out and everyone got drenched.
- I couldn’t believe how many members of my favorite sports team were caught up in the recent sign-stealing scandal. What a shame.
- I got so caught up in the book I am reading that I completely missed my meeting this afternoon.
All this said, there are also other possible meanings of the phrase caught up (the present-tense form of the phrase being catch up). If you catch up or caught up with your friends or family, for example, you learn or learned what has been happening with them since the last time you spoke or saw one another. In this way, someone can also catch you up on the latest information about a topic, like what you need to know before a meeting at work or about the recent changes with a business before you visit it again. You can also catch up to someone or something to become equal to or even in some way with them or it: For instance, if you’re driving and are behind a friend’s car, you can drive a bit faster to reach them and pull up in the lane next to them; when you do, you’ll have caught up to their vehicle. In the same vein, if you’ve fallen behind in one way or another, you can try to get caught up, or to become current: You can catch up on the homework you missed while you were out of school, or get caught up on the television shows you weren’t able to watch while you were working on a big project.
As has already been mentioned, caught up is an idiom. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. As you’ve already discovered, these words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom before now, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
Hear someone say they’re “caught up in” something, and, as mentioned at the start of this post, you might think they’re, quite literally, physically tangled up in a snare. Although the expression can, of course, be used when that’s the case, most often if someone tells you’re they’re “caught up in” one thing or another, they’re either involved or entangled with it in some way, with “it” being a difficult or troubling (even scandalous) situation. Or, they’re so focused on something that it’s all they’re aware of—they’re oblivious to everything else.
The other possible intended meanings of caught up shared above are also idiomatic, in that they don’t mean someone is captured or trapped in some way as you might expect.
If you’re “caught up in” something, you’re either actively participating in it, even if you don’t want to be (with “it” usually being a complicated situation of some kind), or you’re so enthralled with and distracted by it that it’s all you can think about and focus on. When not followed by the preposition in, the phrase caught up has other meanings: For example, it can mean to be updated on a person’s life events since you last saw them or to get an update on need-to-know news and information in general. It can also mean to try to become current once you’ve fallen behind—to complete the tasks you should have already finished—or to move or progress fast enough to reach someone who is ahead of you, either physically or otherwise.