ON LANGUAGE; Don't Go South, Young Man
IN THE TV SERIES "MURDER, SHE Wrote," the character played by Angela Lansbury was accosted by a police lieutenant about a suspect she was helping: "When I sent some guys over to your place to pick him up," the cop complained, "he'd gone south."
In the opposite direction, Adam Sandler wrote in Variety that the recent video release of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" had sold more than 17 million copies and "generated north of $300 million in retail sales."
Now both ways: when The Washington Post's media shoofly, Howard Kurtz, hoped that ratings of the O. J. Simpson trial would "go south," Dan Rather on "48 Hours" on CBS responded, "The ratings were going north, not south."
Rather knows how to handle a compass: North is up, South is down. (I capitalize the directions, though not southern or southward.) Obviously, up is good news, down is bad. But this metaphor, now omnidirectional on television, has deeper roots than it seems. According to Fred Cassidy, editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE): "Evidently a part of American Indian (Sioux) belief included go south = to die. The sense of deterioration is not far off."
The inspiring Professor Cassidy, now 87 and still only on the letter "O" -- he and his University of Wisconsin team are working as fast as they can -- directed me to Mitford M. Mathews's Dictionary of Americanisms. In that 1951 lexicon, a 1746 citation, from David Brainerd's journal, about an aged Delaware Indian's opinion that the soul departing the body "would go southward" was elucidated in a Harper's Magazine article in 1894: "The Dakota tribes believe that the soul, driven out of the body, journeys off to the south, and 'to go south' is, among the Sioux, the favorite euphemism for death."
A sexual sense was added by whites who followed the American aboriginals. In the 1955 Broadway musical "Silk Stockings," based on the movie "Ninotchka," Cole Porter wrote, "I'd love to make a tour of you"; stops on this lyrical tour included "The eyes, the arms, the mouth of you/ The East, West, North and the South of you." On the surface, an innocent lyric, and never banned from the airwaves; still, when Don Ameche sang the word South, the sexual innuendo about the nether parts of the body was unmistakable.
Financial reporters took up the compass metaphor to enliven their language about the direction of the stock market. "The markets headed south today" is an all-too-frequent usage in finance. Lou Dobbs of the CNN program "Moneyline" tells me, "While I've heard many analysts and market gurus talk about stocks going south, I've never heard anyone say a market is going north."
At least the directional metaphor of North (up, good news) and South (down, bad news) is clear. For example, when there is good statistical news on the jobless or inflation fronts, and those figures drop, you do not hear "Unemployment figures and inflation rates are headed south." Thus, the metaphoric meaning of "headed South" is not so much "downward" as "bad news."
That clarity cannot be claimed by uphill and downhill. "Your column and the crossword puzzle get my week off to a civilized start," Patricia Patricelli of Boston writes. "Usually it's all downhill from there. (Or is it uphill? I've never really understood that expression. Going downhill is easier, but it sounds negative to me, i.e., sinking, down in the depths.)"
It's all downhill from here. Does that mean "From now on, it's easy -- no more struggling uphill" or does it mean "This is as good as it gets, and now we're headed for the pits"?
"I always thought that if someone were going downhill, that signified deterioration," Steve Conn of New York writes, "whereas uphill meant getting better. Tell me: should we prefer to go uphill or downhill?"
Allan Metcalf of the American Dialect Society notes that "Downhill has been going figuratively downhill since the O.E.D.'s first record of its use, in 1591: 'Th' Icie down-Hils of this slippery Life.' Whether we weep or rejoice in any particular instance depends on whither the icy downhills lead -- to a decline, or to an Olympic skiing record."
John Algeo, the neologist of American Speech, points to the two-way working of the metaphor: "If one thinks that the top of the hill is the place to be, then going downhill is declining. But if one thinks about effort, then an uphill struggle is bad, and coasting downhill is good. The difference is between metaphorical place ('up' good, 'down' bad) and metaphorical effort to move on an inclined plane ('uphill' hard, 'downhill' easy)."
Though the first use of downhill, about the slippery life, was pejorative, a more famous use -- by Daniel Defoe in his 1719 "Robinson Crusoe" -- was upbeat: "a very short cut, and all down-hill," which was quicker and easier for the castaway and his man Friday than the long way uphill. "Perhaps a human tendency to look on the dark side favors the pejorative sense," Professor Algeo says. "Metaphorically, both work."
But they work at semantic cross-purposes. The hills are alive with the sound of confusion. My advice: forget the hill metaphor and try something nautical: smooth sailing and rough sailing, or if you go for the icy slopes, easy sledding or hard sledding. Ban the hills; if you want bad news, go South. I Wrote It Myself
President Clinton has taken to running down his speech writers in public, boasting about rejecting prepared remarks and doing the writing himself; this is to show that what he says comes from the Real Him. I suspect that these lines are written by speech writers falling on their pens, mightier than their swords.
In Mr. Clinton's pre-Christmas "Middle Class Bill of Rights" speech (bottomed on Nixon's "Economic Bill of Rights" statement, which we stole from F.D.R.), I was pleased to hear his pickup of the "government that is leaner, not meaner" phrase; was ambivalent about his "raise their children" (purists differentiate between raising cattle and rearing children, and in formal speech that distinction should be made, but Mr. Clinton, even when wearing a dark suit in the Oval Office, prefers the folksy), but was stunned, stunned (one cut above "shocked, shocked") by "Some people do take advantage of the rest of us by . . . flaunting our immigration laws."
To flaunt means "to show off, to parade ostentatiously"; the verb the President meant was flout, "to disregard contemptuously, to mock or scoff at." Even kids raised with the laid-back Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage are told that mistaking flout for flaunt is "a genuine error" and, by confusing these verbs, "you do run the risk of giving some of your listeners the mistaken impression that they are smarter than you are."