The Other I

November 8, 2013

Up, Down, or around?

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 4:42 pm

Cultural differences have fascinated me ever since my father told us, when I was about six years old, that some Chinese people ate birds’  nests.  Why?  I wondered.  And did the Chinese use catsup on their nests?  Did they cook them first?

Over the years I’ve come to understand that cultures don’t just influence our language and food preferences.  They can even shape our most fundamental understandings.

Yesterday I realized it even influences our understanding of space.

I’ve been living with my husband for 40 years, and thought I knew him pretty well.  But there is still room for surprises.  We were discussing the best route to take to a farm shop we wanted to visit.  I suggested that we start by going “down Rt. 603.”  Yes, he nodded in agreement, and then “down the A-10.”

Down the A-10!? I asked in startled disagreement.  “That’s going in exactly the wrong direction.”

Then I remembered.

Here in England one goes “up” to London, whether one is going north or south.  So of course, if one is heading away from London, one goes “down,” even if it means heading north.

I asked Google where this conception of Up and Down came from.  The most convincing answer I found was that the words are not directional in the sense of space but in the sense of social status.  Since London is the capital of the country, it is always “up.”  And if one is expelled from Cambridge or Oxford, one is “sent down,” even if one returns to the north.

Fascinating.  It’s enough to get a foreigner going in circles sometimes.  But we did make it to the farm shop — going “down” the A-10.



  1. going up in the north of norway (trondheim), whenever we left the house – we were going “down” to wherever – even in those rare occasions when we headed north to artic circle territory. unwittingly i carried this into english and drive my friends slightly batty when i say i am going down to boston (from nyc) or down the street to the avenue when it is both north and up hill checked with my family who stated it is a common norwegian thing as most of the population, not living in the capital, live north of it. seems to me that the brits are niew socially aware living in cities with larger populations than norway with a total population of less than 5 million which is under than that of just london also it population is not stratified being by and large scandinavian not racially diversified not a melting pot one religion, etc did you find this up/down class tied language particular to GB? seems to me that prejudice (class-ism) is married often to differences or making differences… least i am better than x) harder (but not impossible) to do when everyone is white protestant


    Comment by kateritek — November 8, 2013 @ 6:45 pm | Reply

    • I do strongly suspect it is a class thing. Not only is one sent down from Cambridge or Oxford if one fails to make the mark, but one also goes “up” to either of these two very prestigious universities when one becomes a student there. And yes, it does seem to me to be more often used by those who have upper-class accents. Though that it hard to tell. I’m by no means an expert, and besides that, regional dialects are much more accepted now than they used to be.

      I had no idea this Up Down usage existed anywhere else. Your saying you imported it from Norway made me begin to wonder why we always talk about “down town” where I grew up and in many places in the US. It’s not directional.

      Speaking of importing directions, I still have to be careful when I’m giving driving instructions not to say “left” when I really mean “cross the lane of oncoming traffic before turning in the opposite direction.” Interestingly, my brother did the same thing when he was giving directions on a trip we took together over here. We saw several quaint villages we weren’t planning on visiting as Peter did what he was told — as my brother kept repeating “Right! right!” with increasing emphasis. And then, when it was too late, in a very small voice “Oh, I meant stay left.”

      Do’t you love it!?


      Comment by Terry Sissons — November 8, 2013 @ 9:22 pm | Reply

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