Etymology Grammar Usage

Ups and downs of English

Q: I was speaking with Russian friends about “up” and “down.” As I understand it, Russians would never go down to New Orleans or up to Chicago.  They would go south or north. This led to “uptown” and “downtown.” From my small-town perspective, I use the words interchangeably. As I think back, though, I seem to have gone uptown more as a kid and downtown more in my mature years. I would be interested in your thoughts.

A: Idiomatic English is particularly rich in odd uses of prepositions. The use of “up” and “down” in geographical references is an interesting case.

Take, for example, the words “uptown” and “downtown.” In New York City, “uptown” is north and “downtown” is south, but that’s not necessarily the case in other towns.

The Oxford English Dictionary and other sources say “downtown,” which originated in American English in the 19th century, has at least four meanings.

It can mean a part of town that’s at a lower elevation, or that’s southerly, or that’s geographically central, or that’s devoted to business.

And “uptown” is sometimes used in different ways in British and American English.

In both countries, it can mean at a higher elevation. But in the US, it can also mean northerly, or more residential or more prosperous than “downtown.”

The prosperous usage probably reflects the tradition of wealthier neighborhoods being built on higher ground.

In the US, “up” and “down” are commonly used to mean higher or lower on a map—hence, north or south. But there are exceptions.

For example, it’s not unusual for residents of New Jersey to drive “up to Maine” or “down to Florida.” But, as one of our readers tells us, “In New Jersey dialect we almost never go to the beach or to the ocean. We always go ‘down the shore,’ whether we live in north, south, or central New Jersey.” We’ve written about this before on our blog

Oddly, the OED has no entries for “up” meaning north or “down” meaning south—that is, at the top or the bottom of a map.

In fact, the British uses of “up” and “down” can be downright bewildering to an American reader.

The two of us enjoy 19th-century British novels, and used to wonder why a young man who was kicked out of Oxford was always “sent down,” even if his home was to the north.

And Londoners going to points north always traveled “down” to get there.

As the OED explains, “down” in Britain can mean “from the capital to the distant parts of a country,” or it can mean “away from a university.”  

And the reverse is true with “up.” That’s why an incoming student goes “up” to Oxford, even if it means traveling south to get there. And a Londoner coming back from the north travels “up” to get home.

There’s a certain class consciousness at work here, with “up” and “down” used to mean superior or inferior—upper or lower—in importance.

In other words, someone would go “up” to sophisticated London and “down” to the provincial countryside.

In these more democratic times, though, such usages aren’t universal in Britain. But they live on in old fiction.

In Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (1873), for example, Lizzie Eustace often travels between London and Scotland. The phrase “down to Scotland” appears 12 times in the novel  and “down in Scotland” 10 times, all from the perspective of points to the south, mostly London.

As we said, this isn’t the way all Britons speak nowadays. But they still use “up” and “down” in reference to the “upper” and “lower” houses of Parliament.

And both Britons and Americans use them in speaking of “upper” and “lower” courts.

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