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What's the origin of the idiom go south? Why is it go south only? Why not go southwest or go east?

Are the direction-related idioms go south, go north, go east, and go west correlated?

Example, go south from http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/go+south:

  • to make an escape; to disappear.
  • to fall; to go down.
  • drop out of sight

I've read a few times go east young man or go west young man, but I am not sure that they formally exist or not.

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I am not familiar with any of those "directional idioms." Can you give an example with context? –  KitFox Sep 19 '11 at 3:04
    
My understanding has always been that "south" in this phrase was synonymous with "down", similar to "go downhill". However, after a few minutes of searching, I can't find any sources to back this up. –  daxelrod Sep 19 '11 at 3:06
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worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-sou1.htm –  z7sg Ѫ Sep 19 '11 at 3:22
    
@z7sg - informative link –  user395072 Sep 19 '11 at 3:32
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I'm more likely to say something's gone west if it's ruined beyond repair or otherwise totally lost. To me, going south is a bit of an Americanism, which I particularly associate with plunging financial markets rather than broken things. @z7sg's link says gone west is a Briticism, which seems right to me. –  FumbleFingers Sep 19 '11 at 3:37
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4 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The use of south as in the phrase go south stems from the 1920s (from the Oxford English Dictionary):

colloq. (orig. Stock Market). Downward or lower in value, price, or quality; in or into a worse condition or position. Esp. in to head (also go) south.

1920 Elgin (Illinois) Dairy Rep. 13 Nov., Meat, grains and provisions generally, are like Douglas Fairbanks, headed south—in other words, going down.

The reason South is correlated with down is because of its use in the standard Western set of cardinal directions:


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of telling someone to "go west" is not related to the phrase "going south". Instead, it means:

go west, young man: used as an encouragement to seek fortune in the American West; also in extended use. Attributed to Horace Greeley, who, according to Josiah Bushnell Grinnell, gave the latter this advice in September 1851 (see quot. 1891)

The phrase go west on its own also refers figuratively to death (as the sun sets in the West).


There is no similar idiom "go east", unless one is actually telling someone to go in the cardinal direction of east.


The direction "north" has a figurative meaning as well:

Higher; esp. in north of (a figure, cost, etc.): higher than, in excess of.

Though north and south have related meanings (higher and lower, respectively), they are used in different ways. North is usually used in respect to a give figure or amount. For example,

2001 San Francisco Business Times (Nexis) 9 Nov. 21 What's your average deal size? It's gone north of $250,000 per contract even as high as $300,000 per contract.

However, south is usually used as a general figure of speech. For example,

2003 R. B. Parker Stone Cold (2004) xl. 154 But your marriage went south and you had a drinking problem.

That being said, the two can be used both to refer to figure amounts, although in my experience this usage is rarer:

1986 Financial Times (Nexis) 5 July i. 6 With oil heading south of $10‥the London stock market today stands less than 4 per cent below its highest ever level.

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Thanks. That was helpful. can go north be taken as in a positive manner ? –  user395072 Sep 19 '11 at 3:35
    
@user395072 Please see my updates--the answer is both yes and no. –  simchona Sep 19 '11 at 3:44
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The idiom appears to be of U.S. origin; certainly it doesn't appear in Eric Partridge's U.K.-centric Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. The two U.S. reference works I consulted that cover the term express somewhat different views about its origin from those that the OED offers in simchona's citation (and from each other's views). Here's what they say...

From The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997):

go south Deteriorate or decline, as in The stock market is headed south again. This expression is generally thought to allude to compasses and two-dimensional maps where north is up and south is down. However, among some Native Americans, the term was a euphemism for dying, and possibly this sense led to the present usage. [Slang; first half of the 1900s]

From Chapman and Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, Third Edition (1995):

go south (also head south, take a turn south) 1 v phr by 1940s To disappear; fail by or as if by vanishing [examples omitted] 2 v phr by 1925 To abscond with money loot, etc. [examples omitted] 3 v phr underworld by 1950 To cheat, esp to cheat at cards [examples omitted] 4 v phr by 1980s To lessen; diminish [examples omitted] Probably from the notion of disappearing south of the border, to Texas or to the Mexican border, to escape legal pursuit and responsibility; probably reinforced by the widespread Native American belief that the soul after death travels to the south, attested in American Colonial writing fr the middle 1700s; GTT, "Gone to Texas, absconded," is found by 1839[.]

The Chapman and Kipfer discussion, in particular, casts considerable doubt on the OED's notion that "go south" was originally a stock market term. I'm also mystified by the allusion to Douglas Fairbanks in the Elgin Dairy Report sentence from 1920 about farm commodities that are "headed south—in other words, going down." As Wikipedia notes, 1920 was the year that Fairbanks's hugely successful film The Mark of Zorro was released:

In The Mark of Zorro, Fairbanks combined his appealing screen persona with the new adventurous costume element. It was a smash success and parlayed the actor into the rank of superstar. For the remainder of his career in silent films he continued to produce and star in ever more elaborate, impressive costume films, such as The Three Musketeers (1921), Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Black Pirate (1926, the first full-length Technicolor film), and The Gaucho (1927). Fairbanks spared no expense and effort in these films, which established the standard for all future swashbuckling films.

Whatever the Elgin Dairy Report intended to suggest by saying that Fairbanks had gone south, it could hardly have meant that he was in decline or dying as a motion picture star.

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I believe that it's clear the reference to the actor, Douglas Fairbanks, is describing how his career rapidly, and quite spectacularly, declined when talking movies became predominant in Hollywood. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Fairbanks The "talkies" was the toll of doom for many an actor, whereas Chaplin persisted to write, star and direct silent movies despite the fact everyone else was jumping on the band wagon. –  Mari-Lou A Jan 20 at 7:45
    
Hi, @Mari-LouA. My point was that the Elgin Dairy Report story (cited in simchona's answer) was published much too early to refer to the decline of Fairbanks's career. In 13 November 1920, Fairbanks was still on the rise as a Hollywood actor, and The Jazz Singer (the first Hollywood talking film) was still almost seven years away. However, the Grammarphobia blog (grammarphobia.com/blog/2011/11/north-south.html) may resolve the mystery, explaining that the article's reference to Fairbanks is an allusion to his film Headin' South (1918), about whose plot even IMDb says nothing. –  Sven Yargs Jan 21 at 4:39
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The loss of manufacturing jobs in New England to new cheaper labor plants that opened from the Carolina to points further south. Especially textiles.

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During the late 1800's Bandidos used to come across the border from Mexico to Rob and pillage. And then they would "go south"to return to their lairs. Hence the term "go south" is associated with something bad.

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Hi @Roger Camargo Thanks for your answer. Could you show your sources? –  nxx Mar 13 at 2:38
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