The Grammarphobia Blog

A noun for being upside down

Q: Why is there no word that describes the state of being upside down?

A: There’s a hyphenated word that may be what you’re looking for. It’s a noun, “upside-downism” (what else?), and the Oxford English Dictionary has exactly one citation for its use.

The word appeared in a book called The Oxonian in Iceland (1861), a travel book by Frederick Metcalfe about a trip taken in the summer of 1860.

We’ll expand the OED citation to provide some context. Here’s Metcalfe, describing a horseback ride through a volcanic region known as a “hraun” (Icelandic for “lava”):

“It was a ruin indeed, the abomination of desolation; as if the elements of some earlier world had melted with fervent heat; and as they cooled had burst asunder and been hurled by the Demons of Misrule and Upside-downism into a disjointed maze of confusion worse confounded.”

(Makes the eruption sound like a moral failing on the part of the volcano, doesn’t it?)

The OED doesn’t define “upside-downism,” but it describes it as a derivative of “upside down,” which has had an appropriately topsy-turvy history since it entered English in the 1300s.

For many centuries, “upside down” was exclusively an adverb (as in “turned upside down”). The adjective, usually hyphenated (as in “upside-down cake”), came along in the
mid-19th century.

When originally recorded, the Middle English adverb was up so doun (or up swa doun in northern dialects), and it apparently meant something like “up as if down.”

It first appeared in writing around 1340 in a Northumbrian religious poem, The Pricke of Conscience, which the OED attributes to the Oxford-educated mystic and hermit Richard Rolle:

“Tharfor it es ryght and resoune, / That they be turned up-swa-doune.” (We’ve converted the letter thorn to “th” throughout.)

The term appeared in another 14th-century poem, a verse rendition of The Seven Sages of Rome, an ancient Eastern collection of tales found in many languages and probably about 2,500 years old.

Here’s the couplet: “The cradel and the child thai found / Up so doun upon the ground.”

As the OED says, “The use of so is peculiar, the only appropriate sense being that of ‘as if.’ ”

At any rate, the “so” eventually disappeared. The OED explains that the compound was “frequently reduced to upsa-, upse-, and subsequently altered to upset and upside down, in the endeavour to make the phrase more intelligible.”

During the 15th and 16th centuries there were many versions of the term, including “opsadoun,” “upsedoun,” “up set doune,” “upset downe,” “upsydowne,” “vpsyde downe,” and others.

By the early 17th century, the modern spelling “upside down” had become established.

You didn’t ask, but the playful interjection “upsy-daisy,” which we’ve written about on our blog, is no relation—apart from the presence of “up.”

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