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Going south

Q From Alison Hill, Devon: When I (in the UK) refer to something as having been destroyed or lost or otherwise rendered permanently unserviceable, I say it’s gone west. In similar circumstances Alistair Cooke (speaking from the USA) talks about things going south. Where do going west and going south spring from (my dictionary gives several possible alternatives for west, but does not recognise south); and are there differences (in meaning or usage) between these two phrases?

A Both have the same meaning, but go south has largely supplanted the older go west in the USA and seems likely to do so everywhere else fairly soon. In Britain, it tends to be younger people that use go south, leaving us older ones sounding geographically challenged.

Let’s take them in order. The origins of go west — meaning to die, perish, or disappear — seems anciently to be connected with the direction of the setting sun, symbolising the end of the day and so figuratively the end of one’s life. Going west has been linked to dying in English since the sixteenth century, though the idea must surely be very much older. It is sometimes said that it refers to the ride westwards that condemned prisoners in London took along Holborn from Newgate Prison to the gibbet at Tyburn, where Marble Arch now stands. My own feeling, not supported by much in the way of evidence, is that this story, even if true, is a particular application of an older viewpoint.

There’s a typically American association, of course, summed up in the exhortation to “Go west, young man, go west!”, often attributed to Horace Greeley, but actually said by John Soule, a newspaperman in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1851. His meaning was not the negative one of death or dissolution, but one of hope to young men (only by implication young women, too) to make their way west as pioneers and take up a new life of promise. However, to the relatives and friends of the departing hopefuls back East, it must have seemed a little like a premature death, since they were unlikely ever to see them again.

The shift in sense of go west to one suggesting something had terminally broken down is much more recent: the big Oxford English Dictionary has no examples before 1919.

Contrast that with go south, which is first recorded in the 1970s, though it was uncommon until the beginning of the 1990s, after which it experienced explosive growth. The early evidence suggests it was business jargon: Random House Dictionaries say their first example is from Business Week in September 1974: “The market then rallies, falls back to test its low — and just keeps ‘heading South,’ as they say on the Street.” Note the quote marks around the phrase, showing that the writer considers it slang. The phrase seems to have later been taken over into technical fields such as computing (which needs as many terms for equipment and software failure as it can find), where significant numbers of examples appeared from the early 1990s on.

Where did it come from? My guess is that it’s based on graphical images. Think of sales charts that show worse results as a line going downwards (even at times figuratively “through the floor”), using the convention that regards height as good and depth as bad. Then combine that with maps, which by convention have north at the top. So a firm that was failing had its sales going figuratively in a southerly direction.

Why are we changing over? The associations of death and decay with a westwards direction have been growing less strong with time, and have survived only through a conventional idiom. Conversely, the American view of the south being connected with things that are unpleasant (at least to those living in the north of the country) may result from mental associations with slaves being sold down the river or to cultural echoes of the Civil War.

The new expression has vigour and seems certain to prevail.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 Mar. 2003

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Last modified: 1 March 2003.