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People in London, who live in the suburbs, may tell you they work 'up town', meaning in the City or the West End.

In other large cities in Britain, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds etc., I think people who earn their living in the City Centre (equivalent to Downtown with capital D) will say casually that they work 'in town'. I think I'm right when I say that only Londoners go 'up town'.

So where did the idea of 'Downtown' come from?

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+1 cool question –  Soylent Green Jan 24 at 19:15
    
The Charlotte CBD is "Uptown," though that is simply the historic name for the neighborhoods, like Chicago's "Loop" or San Francisco's "Financial District." Other American cities also have "uptown" districts outside the CBD as well; I wonder if any British cities have "downtown" quarters. –  choster Jan 24 at 19:29
    
@choster 'Downtown' is quintessentially American, which isn't to say the term is not used here. (Not least by Petula Clark in her 1960s upbeat song of that name.) It is used by hotels, travel companies etc to assist American tourists, but apart from that you don't hear it much. –  WS2 Jan 24 at 19:41
    
In Chicago there is a neighborhood called "Uptown". Endlessly confusing for a native New Yorker, for whom "Uptown" is a Manhattan-centric synonym for "North-ish". –  abby hairboat Jan 24 at 21:54
    
'Going up town' was certainly common in Oldham, at least, 50 years ago. It is still used – there is a Google reference involving Glasgow. –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 25 at 0:01

7 Answers 7

up vote 42 down vote accepted

Citing Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950 by Robert M. Fogelson, Wikipedia says:

The term is thought to have been coined in New York City, where it was in use by the 1830s to refer to the original town at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. As the town of New York grew into a city, the only direction it could grow on the island was toward the north, proceeding upriver from the original settlement (the "up" and "down" terminology in turn came from the customary map design in which up was north and down was south). Thus, anything north of the original town became known as "uptown" (Upper Manhattan), while the original town (which was also New York's only major center of business at the time) became known as "downtown" (Lower Manhattan).

During the late 19th century, the term was gradually adopted by cities across the United States and Canada to refer to the historical core of the city (which was most often the same as the commercial heart of the city). Notably, it was not included in dictionaries as late as the 1880s. But by the early 1900s, downtown was clearly established as the proper term in American English for a city's central business district.

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@WS2 - I would attribute it more to the fact that most major US cities outside the east coast didn't become major cities until the latter half of the 19th century, populated by westward migration from cities like New York. The new settlers brought their speech patterns with them, some of which took hold in the new location. (I suppose this may help explain some of the homogeneity you perceive.) –  phenry Jan 24 at 19:07
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@WS2 The consistency of American English is in large part a side effect of high levels of internal migration (declining sharply since 1990 or so, but still showing about 1 in 7 households moving house every year; each American moves around 12 times over a lifetime). The mass media of course had a hand over most of the 20th century. Greater tolerance of regional distinctions (e.g. television shows featuring people with Southern accents are rather more common now than 30 years ago) and declining mobility may see a resurgence of locally identified quirks of AmE. –  choster Jan 24 at 19:20
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In Britain generally we go 'up' to anywhere of importance. When I lived in Norfolk as a child, although it was north of the capital, we always went 'up' to London. People would talk about what happens 'up London', often with disdain! People are also said to be 'up in court' when arraigned. Students go 'up' to university. My sense is that this same idea is customary across Europe. Joseph and Mary went up to Jerusalem to be taxed (didn't they?) . So in the light of this cultural omnipresence of 'up' being to a place of importance in Western society, the American 'downtown' seems remarkable. –  WS2 Jan 24 at 19:20
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@choster - Interesting comments, and yes, internal migration was very, very high, but the statistics don't take into account moving within an area, e.g. from one neighborhood to a better one within the same geographical area (a common occurrence to put kids into a better school system as incomes rise.) As to going to another city, many of us just say, go to. "Want to go to NY this weekend? Go to Philly?" But downtown is definitely downtown. –  medica Jan 24 at 19:37
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@Susan But even on measures such as moves across state lines or county lines or arbitrary distances (e.g. 150km), Americans were historically far more likely to move than any other country not facing war or disaster. Of course, that's a national average; Pew says about 4 in 10 Americans lives in the same county he or she was born in, and the younger and more highly educated move far more often than older and less educated. –  choster Jan 24 at 19:46

I'd guess probably because the city center was either located South of their present location, or because the location was actually physically low in elevation. A good example of this is when the dense part of the city "the down town part", is located in a valley, while most of the housing is on the foothills.

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It would seem to me, from reading the responses, and from thinking further, that the history of the development of New York City played a big part in the notion of 'Downtown'. It is a word that generally-speaking sounds foreign to British ears, but which is employed by the travel industry in the UK for the benefit of tourists.

'Downtown', as I understand it, has two important senses. 'Downtown Minneapolis' is what in Britain we would call the 'City Centre of Minneapolis'.

Where Americans say they are 'going down town', we (especially Londoners) will say we are going 'up town'. In other British cities people may say 'I'm going into town', or 'I'm going in to the City Centre'. But usage across Britain is highly peculiar to local circumstances, and varies greatly from place to place. Also the whole question of what is a city and what is a town, and in what circumstance we refer to Birmingham as a city and in what circumstances we say 'going into town (meaning Birmingham centre) ' is highly nuanced and particular to places.

I would also be interested to learn exactly what is meant by the American term 'Central Business District'. In the case of London, I am never sure if this would mean the City of London, where the Bank of England, the Stock Exchange, and the whole panoply of financial institutions are housed, or the shopping area around Oxford Street.

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As I understand it, "Central Business District" would mean where the large business offices and financial institutions are. So for London, the equivalent probably would be "City of London". (Although London is large enough it may have several areas which count as "central business districts".) –  Peter Shor Jun 19 at 1:22

Town is directly related to the word down and originally meant enclosed land or fortress which, for obvious security reasons, would be built up on high ground where the surrounding area would be down.

(Compare related words sand dune, the surname Dunhill 'Hill-hill', and the meaning of downs for hilly land: Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology.)

For the purposes of transportation and trade, a town's business district would naturally be located down near a body of water, such as an ocean, lake, or river. As the population grew, the inhabitants would often build further uphill and away from the water--the commercial center. Although Americans may have copied the 'Manhattan model' to describe their own towns, the use of downtown to mean the central business district would have made perfect sense at the time. (see Wikipedia 'downtown')

From my experience living in cities in Ohio, Oregon, Alaska, and New Jersey, the word uptown seems to be extremely rare, with the exception of Manhattan, of course.

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Regarding seeing London as 'up'.

This is a UK railway convention where London is (almost) always 'up', geographical directions notwithstanding. (cite: wikipedia)

(c.f. in Downton Abbey, where they talk about going 'up' to London, despite going south from Yorkshire.)

(I'm not so sure about the reasoning given in the wikipedia. It is claimed that it's from early lines going between 'upland' mines and 'downcountry' ports. The reason I have heard is that early timetables always had London at the top. This was then repeated by Bradshaw and became universal.)

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This is an appealing explanation, it makes sense but as I am not American I cannot be certain if this holds. Could you please provide a reference which backs up your hypothesis? –  Mari-Lou A Jun 18 at 22:51
    
Another reason for uptown/downtown on US river cities is that when the city has hills rising behind the riverfront, "uptown" is away from the banks at a higher elevation and avoids flooding. Thus the other way is 'downtown' and the business district. –  Oldcat Jun 19 at 0:33

Spending the 1st 32 years of my life living all across America, I would venture that all the preceding answers are a factor. Many of the "original" town hubs were both lower elevations and to some degree south, the perception "downtown" implying work, toil, business, while "uptown" implies leisure $$$ etc. And of course something I distinctly realized after I left, the American persistence to differentiate themselves from everyone else. They use NTSC everyone else PAL, they dove into the water everyone else dived, 120 v/60 Hz vs. 220/50 Hz, altering the spelling of many words, grounded vs. earthed electricity.

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It is all to do with the notion, now referred to by some historians as 'American Exceptionalism'. It is the idea from the start held by Americans that their country was in some way a special case, and should be regarded as 'exceptional'. Type those two words into Amazon and see how many books come up. I particularly refer you to the works of Trevor McCrisken., –  WS2 Jan 25 at 9:42
    
@WS2: I seem to remember from a recent read that American Exceptionalism was a notion quipped by Lenin. The notion was pejorative (as in, the US is the exception where communism won't go mainstream) until the USSR fell. Only then did it get picked up by US media and earn the current positive connotation. –  Denis de Bernardy Jan 25 at 14:46
    
@Denis My only advice is to read McCrisken. –  WS2 Jan 25 at 17:04

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