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I've just come across the short story "Do You Love Me?" by Peter Carey via a story-ID over at SFF. The basic premise of the story is that when something isn't loved, it disappears.

Upon reading through the story, I came across a repeated phrase that I'm unfamiliar with:

  1. A Contradiction
    "Look at those fools," my father said, "they wouldn’t know if they were up themselves."

My father stiffened and sat bolt upright. The pressure of his hand on my knee increased until I yelped with pain, and still he held on, hurting me terribly.
"You are a fool," he said, "you wouldn’t know if you were up yourself."

“The world needs Cartographers,” he said softly, “because if they didn’t have Cartographers the fools wouldn’t know where they were. They wouldn’t know if they were up themselves if they didn’t have a Cartographer to tell them what’s happening. The world needs Cartographers,” my father said[.]
(all emphasis added)

What does this phrase "to be up oneself" or whatever mean? It's not immediately obvious from context, and it's a phrase I'm unfamiliar with.

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    I've usually seen the phrase "up themselves", or "heads up their [orifices]", meaning someone who's ignorant and self-obsessed. (Possibly British slang?) But that doesn't seem to fit the context here. I haven't read the story - is this Peter Carey (or the setting) British? – Rand al'Thor Apr 22 at 13:33
  • The phrase "were up yourself" appears only a few times on Google Books [link], and aside from multiple uses by the same author you've quoted, it always means "were awake yourself". So I think this might be a personal quirk of his, rather than a normal expression. – ruakh Apr 22 at 22:42
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    As I noted below, this is clearly an instance of "up yourself" meaning "to be conceited", as every schoolkid who grew up in Australia knows. What does "were awake yourself" mean in this context? – jogloran Apr 23 at 2:10
  • The thing is it's a register mismatch. In Aussie English it sounds really odd to say "They wouldn’t know if they were up themselves if they didn’t have ..." It's a phrase said in scorn or anger, not in soft words arguing for the value of a profession. – curiousdannii Apr 23 at 23:30
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The meaning of "up yourself" being "conceited" ("being up your own ass" or "up yourself") from @skooba and @Michael Finn is correct,

but neither answer fully captures the particular context you have mentioned (Sorry Skooba, but I disagree with your interpretation):

Why is it that:

"They wouldn’t know if they were [conceited] if they didn’t have a Cartographer to tell them what’s happening"?

This is a slightly vulgar play on language by Carey's character which is actually referring to the meaning of "Up yourself" - what he's saying is:

"They wouldn’t know if they [had their head up their arse] if they didn’t have a Cartographer to tell them what’s happening"

Basically, they are so stupid, clueless/ignorant, detached from common sense/experience & so self-unaware (e.g. conceited) that they would be confused as to the position of their head if it was inserted into their own bodily orifice.

Another similar phrase that springs to mind is "they wouldn't know their arse from their elbow" which is usually deployed to describe someone's lack of specific knowledge, or general stupidity, but is very often used to particularly denigrate someone who over-states their abilities - thereby making themselves look arrogant and conceited:

e.g. "He always carried on about how much he knew about cars and how he was a big expert, but when the car broke down and he just opened the bonnet and stared, clearly not knowing what to do, was obvious that he didn't know his arse from his elbow when it came to car maintenance."

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It is my interpretation that from the father's point of view "up" in this context means that their "time is up"; their time on earth and literally vanishing up into thin air. We see the father describe many people as fools and the son tells us the Cartographers are a proud group. They are so foolish in the father's opinion that they wouldn't know if they had stopped being loved and would therefore begin to vanish. But he knows as a Cartographer what the real cause of the vanishings are...

Then the great irony here that it is the father that was the fool that didn't know he was "up himself".

I do believe that when flipped back to the context of father directly (and therefore playing into the irony) it can also cross into the meaning of "being up your own ass" or "up yourself" (as also mentioned by Rand in the comments). Indeed the father was smug, arrogant, and self important.

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    -1: I don't think your first interpretation is right. Peter Carey is an Australian author, and in Australian slang, 'to be up yourself' can only refer to having a high opinion of oneself. This is the only interpretation that makes sense. (source: am Australian) – jogloran Apr 22 at 22:26
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    @jogloran But how does that make sense in the context of the story? We all know the usual dictionary definition of the phrase, but if that's the intended meaning here, then what does it mean to say "they wouldn’t know if they were up themselves", and why does the father keep saying this? – Rand al'Thor Apr 23 at 4:46
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    @jogloran so anything can only ever have a single meaning? Just because I am from a certain country I can only use a phrase in one exact way? – Skooba Apr 23 at 12:29
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    @Skooba It does make sense in the context of the story, I am an Australian and I agree with jogloran. 1. "Look at those fools, they wouldn't know if they were up themselves". "Look at those fools, so concieted they are unable to accurately perceive the reality of the situation". 2. "You are a fool, You wouldn't know if you were up yourself" "You are a fool, you are so conceited you cannot accurately perceive the reality of the situation" 3."Without cartographers...They wouldn't know if they were up themselves" "Without cartographers {Location pun}" – hamsolo474 - Reinstate Monica Apr 23 at 12:42
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    @Skooba: I'd accept that argument if "they wouldn't know if they were up themselves" had any other possible interpretation. I'd argue it does not. – jogloran Apr 23 at 18:32
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EDIT: In the context of this question, Esco's answer here is much better.

Original post:

As an Australian, I can confirm that jogloran and Rand al'Thor's comments are correct.

From the Outback Dictionary, in Aussie slang being 'up yourself' is to 'have a high opinion of yourself'. If someone accuses you of being up yourself, they likely think you are behaving in an arrogant or self-absorbed manner.

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  • As a fellow human being who speaks English, if this isn't what you mean, don't say it. Only Peter knows what Peter meant, unless someone can cite an interview or some other personal response. – Mazura Apr 23 at 1:06
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    @Mazura: Under your logic, if a British author were to write "That's bollocks", we could only throw up our hands in defeat and declare that only they could possibly know what was intended... – jogloran Apr 23 at 2:13
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    But how does this make sense in the context of the story? That's why I left a comment instead of an answer: we all know the usual dictionary definition of the phrase, but if that's the intended meaning here, then what does "they wouldn’t know if they were up themselves" mean and why does the father keep saying this? That's what the question is asking, about the meaning of this phrase in context. – Rand al'Thor Apr 23 at 4:45
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    @Mazura he's using a very common phrase in the country hes from and likely wrote the book in. The meaning would have been clear to any Australian reader, he wrote a book for general publication not an entry in his private diary so cleary he was attempting to communicate in such a way as to be understood by his audience rather than inventing secret meanings only he understood for his idioms. – hamsolo474 - Reinstate Monica Apr 23 at 12:50
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    @Mazura I believe I understand your point, but I do not completely agree. The study of literature is almost entirely centred around interpreting the meanings of others' works. These interpretations may not always line up exactly with the author's intention, but this should not dissuade us from trying. Should we give up on analysing classical literature merely because the authors are dead and cannot confirm our efforts? – Michael Finn Apr 23 at 22:38
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It can suggest that somebody is too egotistical, and is more interested in themselves and their own opinions than they are of others.

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  • Hi! Thanks and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. Short answers can be good, but I wonder if you could explain how that explanation fits into the context and whether that meaning is documented elsewhere. That would significantly improve your answer. – Tsundoku Apr 23 at 14:42

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