The Grammarphobia Blog

Sold down the river

Q: I know that to sell someone down the river means to betray him, but what does a river have to do with it and why down rather than up?

A: The expression “to sell someone down the river”—along with a slightly later version, “to sell someone south”—originated in the days of American slavery, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says these phrases meant “to sell (a slave), esp. one regarded as a troublemaker, to a plantation on the lower Mississippi, typically regarded as providing the harshest conditions for labour.”

The earliest incarnation of the expression, according to OED citations, was recorded in 1835, when a Missouri cabinet maker named Aaron S. Fry wrote in his journal:

“A negro man of Mr. Elies, having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself.”

(The journal entry is reported in Harriet C. Frazier’s 2001 book Slavery & Crime in Missouri, 1773-1865.)

Suicide was not an uncommon reaction among slaves who were “sold down the river” or “sold south,” according to records from the period. In the words of Lucinda MacKethan, a scholar of African-American literature, “To go down the river, for a slave, is to watch one’s destiny take the darkest imaginable turn.”

The OED has another early citation, from an 1836 issue of the African Repository and Colonial Journal:

“Suppose it be enacted that after the year 1840 slavery shall cease to exist in Kentucky. What would follow? All who chose would sell their slaves down the river; the benevolent would free them, and send them away, or let them remain, as they thought best.”

After the Civil War, these slave-trade expressions adopted other meanings—to be cheated, betrayed, ruined, or delivered into some kind of servitude. Here are a few of the OED’s citations:

1921: “Its editors were chiefly concerned to prevent it from being ‘sold down the river’ ” (from Elmer Davis’s History of the New York Times, 1851-1921).

1927: “When Sigsbee Waddington married for the second time, he to all intents and purposes sold himself down the river” (from P. G. Wodehouse’s novel The Small Bachelor).

1942: “If the Casino should go down the river, it meant back to the press agent grind again” (from The Big Midget Murders, by Craig Rice, the pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig).

In reference to prison, someone can be sent either “up the river” or “down the river.” Apparently the route to prison is a two-way stream.

The “up” version, the OED says, originally referred “to Sing Sing prison, situated up the Hudson River from the city of New York.” But later the phrase was used more generally to mean any prison.

Here’s one of the OED’s Sing Sing citations, from Charles Sutton’s history The New York Tombs: Its Secrets and Its Mysteries (1874): “ ‘Well, Colonel,’ he remarked, when the Colonel was brought before him, ‘here you are again. This time I think you stand a good chance for a trip up the river.’ ”

And moving from the Northeast to the Midwest, here’s a hard-boiled example from a 1946 issue of the Chicago Daily News: “I done it. Send me up the river. Give me the hot seat.”

The OED’s citations for “down the river” (meaning prison) begin in 1894 with this quotation from the Atlantic Reporter, a regional case-law publication: “The witness … has testified here that he heard the chief say that he had got H. H. Hollister, and was going to send him down the river, whether guilty or not.”

Another courtroom citation comes from a 1910 edition of the Southern Reporter: “Latham was guilty and, should he be a juror, he would send him down the river.”

More recent is this line from Jack Barnao’s novel LockeStep (1987): “You don’t send a bunch of Godfathers down the river for twenty years without making some serious enemies.”

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