Boy, there are some people these days who really need to get what’s coming to them. They need to get their coming-to-ance.
What I mean is that what goes around comes around, and these people really need to get their come-around-ance.
I mean, they’re too high on themselves – they need to come down a peg, ya know? Get their come-down-ance.
No, wait, what’s the word for getting your just deserts? It’s, uh…
Comeuppance? Come again? Who came up with that?
And yet we all know it and accept it, right? I mean as a word. (Few people happily accept their own comeuppance.) It has a certain something. Like in some historical television drama about intrigues among nobility. Can’t you just hear someone purring in toffee-nosed tones “Well, she’s gotten her comeuppance”?
Naturally, given that I’ve played that gambit, you may guess that it’s originally an American word. And yes, it is. First appeared in the middle 1800s in the USA. And some of the early usages are not comeuppance (or come-uppance) but come-uppings (or even come-upping). Which can make a person wonder, is come-uppance a reinterpretation of come-uppin’s, using the slightly fancier French-derived -ance? I don’t know the answer to that, but the evidence makes it plausible.
But that doesn’t solve for us where this come up comes down from. Wiktionary states flatly that it’s “from come up (“to appear before a judge”) + -ance.” But the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it’s related to the now disused “to be (or get) come up with: (of a person) to get one’s comeuppance; to be outwitted, defeated, or overcome.” It has quotes to support, including this one from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1871 Oldtown Fireside Stories: “The way he got come-up-with by Miry was too funny for anything.” And the 1922 Radio Boys at Mountain Pass by Allen Chapman: “It will do me good if those scoundrels get come up with.”
OK, but who came up with that? How does get come up with connote the boomerang of karma? An adjacent entry in the OED gives a possible clue: “to come up with: to come alongside or abreast of, to reach; to catch up with.” In other words, what’s long been coming to them has caught up with them.
That’s not to say that that’s for sure where it comes from. But the earliest quotations for comeuppance don’t really go with the “come up before a judge” origin – though that could have played into it at some point as well.
One way or another, this word has come up in the world. Its form conduces to an impression of loftier origins than it has; and we have to wonder, if it had instead been come-uppings (or, even better, come-uppin’s), would it have had more or less force? In the frank unfancy tones of a Mark Twain, say, or a Will Rogers, or even a Walt Whitman, would it have given more of a sense of being truly brought to level? Or is it best suited to someone of elevated station being shown up, socially demoted, and yet still not of the servant class? We understand that it’s better to get your comeuppance if you’re an up-and-comer, but does it play the same way if in the final tally you’re down and out?