Language Dilemmas in America

I just got curious why going south has gotten such a bad rap. It used to be Going west, but the west got better. Yet why not going east instead?

Going South should mean a lot more, than going down!

Curiosity often gets the best of me, so when I wrote the line “When the economy up north went south…” in the article about Caribbean crime earlier today, a remote part in my brain triggered the question: Why is it in the English language a negative when something goes south and a positive if someone makes north of a hundred grand a year. I had to think about that for a minute; followed by another five minutes of research.

The old English language used Going West to announce decay and death, but Going South as an indication of negative is no doubt closely related to the way businesses chart their operations. This makes it a relatively new expression of geographic challenges.

As both have the same meaning, Going west has been linked to dying in English since the sixteenth century. Interestingly there is reference to a ride westwards that condemned prisoners in London took along Holborn from Newgate Prison to the gibbet at Tyburn, where Marble Arch now stands. Many early settlers in America were also in one way or another condemned prisoner Sailing Westward.  The origins of go west — meaning to die, perish, or disappear — seems anciently to be connected with the direction of the setting sun, symbolizing the end of the day and so figuratively the end of one’s life.
Typically for America the 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 however 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 most likely not ever to see them again.

The shift in sense of go west to one suggesting something had terminally broken down is much more recent as 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, kind of in line with the exploding economy. 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 quotation marks around the phrase, indicating that the writer considers it slang. The phrase seems to have later been taken over into technical fields such as computing showing that numbers of examples grew from the early 1990s on.

Where did it come from? As I said earlier, 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 low as bad. Maps by convention have north at the top which indicates that 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 would not go over very well these day and only have survived 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 Going South has developed a definite vigor and longevity as a result of its affiliation with finances, but Going East has not caught a following yet. Maybe that’s reserved for government.

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