I was reading this New Statesman article and was surprised to read this:

The origin of the phrase “suck it up” is quite gross. Allegedly, it’s what WWII pilots were instructed to do if they vomited into their oxygen masks, to avoid drowning in their own puke.

I can find little evidence to support this. There is some talk on wiktionary and a related question on the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange.

This usage data seems to contradict it as there is very little change in usage over the WWII era. But I can't find a different origin.

The usage data could also be confused as there is a literal interpretation of the phrase. Looking at the google book results all earlier references seem to refer to a literal 'sucking up' where as post WWII they seem to include it as a metaphor.

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    Maybe a sideways approach to this would be to check if (pre-?)WWII oxygen masks had any way of handling a pilot vomiting. If they did, that would be evidence against such an origin.
    – Marsh
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 22:36
  • 1
    An oxygen mask can be taken off the face for enough time to clear it without suffering any serious effects (certainly not ones worse than drowning in vomit). Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 2:47

1 Answer 1


No, the phrase was already in use before WWII.

See page 46 of the October 1935 issue of The American Legion Monthly:

And on every movie lot where they are shooting army pictures you'll find an ex- top-kick or two who can bawl at a line of extras to "suck it up" or "tuck it in."

The phrase comes from sucking one's abdomen in. See the March 1942 issue of Boys' Life, which, with photographs to illustrate, says:

Push the belly out. Suck it up again.

  • What about this part? "WWII pilots were instructed to do if they vomited into their oxygen masks, to avoid drowning in their own puke." Is it true?
    – user11643
    Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 22:09
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    @fredsbend The claim is that the origin was in WWII. If the phrase was already in use in 1935 then it didn't originate in WWII. Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 10:58
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    @fredsbend I think you were supposed to take the mask off. See the second and third answers here: quora.com/… and "In aviation air sickness may cause vomiting too, but usually the pilot may remove the oronasal oxygen mask while vomiting without getting hypoxic" google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 11:52
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    @fredsbend also "I shut off my mike, rip the oxygen mask from my face, and vomit neatly into a plastic bag kept handy for the purpose" books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 11:58
  • While the first part of the answer is good and (to me) sufficient evidence that "suck it up" as a phrase that approximately means "stop complaining" predates WWII. On the other hand, your second half seems very speculative, and only presents evidence that the phrase can be used in that context, while your claim that "the phrase comes from..." is not supported by the evidence you provide. Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 14:55

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