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play (up)on something
1. Lit. to make music on a musical instrument. (Upon is formal and less commonly used than on.) Can you play upon this instrument, or only the one you are holding? I can't play on this! It's broken.
2. Lit. to play a game on a field or court. Shall we play on the floor or on the table? Let's play on the field. It's dry enough now.
3. Fig. to exploit something—including a word—for some purpose; to develop something for some purpose. (Upon is formal and less commonly used than on.) You are just playing on words! You are playing on a misunderstanding.
4. Fig. [for light] to sparkle on something. The reflections of the candles played on the surface of the wall. The lights played on the crystal goblets.
play something on someone or something
to aim a light or a hose on someone or something. The fireman played water on the burning building. The stagehand played a spotlight on the singer.
play on something
to have an effect on something; to manage something for a desired effect. (The on can be replaced by upon.) The clerk played on my sense of responsibility in trying to get me to buy the book. See if you can get her to confess by playing on her sense of guilt.
to continue to play. The band played on and the dance continued until the wee hours of the morning. We played on and on until the last guests left the party.
Also, play upon. Take advantage of or make use of for a desired effect, as in These health care ads are meant to play on our fears. This idiom uses play in the sense of "performing on an instrument." Shakespeare used it in Hamlet (3:2): "You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops." [Late 1500s]
play onor play upon
1. To take advantage of some attitude or feeling for one's own interests: Many politicians play on popular fears by exaggerating the threat of crime and terrorism.
2. To perform some trick or joke at someone's expense: They're always playing little tricks on me, like stealing one of my shoes.
3. To improvise playfully or mockingly with something: The comedian played on what I had said and made me sound very foolish.