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Send down

Q From Jascha Kessler: Following your piece about rusticate, why are students at Oxbridge sent down rather than expelled? I never understood that one.

A Other readers were also puzzled by this example of the jargon of British ancient universities. It’s not only Oxford and Cambridge that use the term; it’s also known from the more prestigious public schools, especially Eton.

The phrasal verb send down ties in with an ancient view about the direction from superior authority to inferior. A communication from God, the king, Parliament or one’s employer was sent down:

Send down upon our Bishops and Curates ... the healthful Spirit of thy grace.

The bill encountered violent opposition in the House of Lords, but it was carried by a large majority, and sent down to the Commons.

I'm going to send down for Ruth to come up to help to nurse you.

By an obvious enough equation, the same idea was used for a physical move away from a centre of authority — to travel away from a city or other important centre was commonly to be sent down or to go down, irrespective of its elevation or location. The down line on railways is the one leading away from London.

You don’t mean to say that you are really going all the way down into Yorkshire this cold winter’s weather, Mr Nickleby?

Miss La Creevey, the London landlady and painter of miniatures, in Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens, 1839.

In everyday life, this ancient convention has largely been superseded by one based on the map, in which to travel north is to go up and south is down. Londoners would now say they are going up to Yorkshire, though railway companies persist in their belief that they’re actually going down.

Members of Oxford and Cambridge universities go up at the beginning of term and go down at the end, if they haven’t been sent down in the interim. This is an obvious extension of the hierarchical system, because the university is the most important place in their lives.

Despite this mass of ancient conventional usage, the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary implies that the specific sense of send down began as undergraduate slang of the middle of the nineteenth century, since it cites as its first entry a comic tale of undergraduate life, The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green, by Cuthbert Bede, dated 1853. Even in the 1890s, The Times put the phrase in quotes, to indicate that the editors considered it still to be upstart slang, as did this work:

Owing to a misunderstanding I had the misfortune to incur the enmity of my college authorities during my first term, and, in company with two others, was ignominiously “sent down” at the outset of my second year.

The Lust of Hate, by Guy Boothby, 1898.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 5 February 2011.