Etymology Usage

Southern discomfort

Q: On the BBC news site, I came across this quote about people switching accounts from banks to credit unions: “It would have to be a number way north of 40,000 to make an appreciable difference.” What is the history of using “north” and “south” to mean higher or lower numerically? And what about using “south” for a deteriorating situation?

A: We wrote a blog entry a while back on the use of “north” to mean up and “south” to mean down geographically—that is, on a map—as well as the use of “uptown” and “downtown.” In the same geographic vein, we once wrote a post about “upstate.”

But we haven’t yet written about the use of “north” and “south” to mean higher or lower numerically, or “south” to mean a deteriorating situation. Now is our chance to fill in the gaps.

Not surprisingly, financial writers were the first to record these usages. For some reason, in these senses “south” was used half a century before “north.” The story begins with the phrase “headed (or going) south.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for this pessimistic expression is from a 1920 issue of the weekly Elgin (Illinois) Dairy Report: “Meat, grains and provisions generally, are like Douglas Fairbanks, headed south—in other words, going down.” (The reference is to a Douglas Fairbanks movie called Headin’ South.)

The phrase is also used figuratively to mean “in or into a worse condition or position,” the OED says.

Although the dictionary has a citation from the 1970s that suggests this figurative use, the first clear-cut example is from Robert B. Parker’s novel Stone Cold (2003): “But your marriage went south and you had a drinking problem.”

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that people began using “north” to mean higher, higher than, or in excess of, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1978 article in the Guardian Weekly: “Money supply growth for the past year has ended up quite a long way north of the target band—at 16¼ per cent.”

The movie producer Julia Phillips used the expression in her memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (1991): “So Spielberg tells me the budget’s going north.”

And a writer for the San Francisco Business Times used “north” in a similar way in 2001: “What’s your average deal size? It’s gone north of $250,000 per contract even as high as $300,000 per contract.”

Finally, this gives us a chance to put in a plug in for Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel North and South. The title refers to the contrast between the industrial north and agricultural south of England.

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