The word up usually has a positive connotation - thumbs up, look up, go up in life - whereas down usually has a negative connotation - look down, go down etc.

Why is this so and when did such an usage begin?

I did read that up comes from the word for uphill and down comes from the word for downhill, but it still does not explain the connotation assignments.

  • 6
    This phenomenon not only occurs in many more word-pairs (high/low, tall/short, over/under), it is also common across many languages. Therefore it's a deeper question than English alone, perhaps linguistics or even human psychology are more appropriate. Dec 3, 2014 at 6:17
  • @congusbongus: Light/dark too. (A friend of mine created a fictional culture of nocturnal creatures living in a desert, partly to explore exactly this point -- translating "may you walk in the light" literally into their language yields a rather nasty curse.)
    – keshlam
    Dec 4, 2014 at 3:05
  • 1
    After consideration, I'm afraid I disagree with the assertion behind this question. I agree that this is a common association, but in US English at least I don't believe it's anywhere near as strong as Yaitzme suggests.
    – keshlam
    Dec 4, 2014 at 14:32
  • The OED's senses of up include "in a state of disorder", "played out", "finished", "advanced in years", and "in court" (being prosecuted) as well as increased in rank or value.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 24, 2022 at 10:23
  • Is there any reason to think that English is in this respect different from other languages?
    – jsw29
    Mar 24, 2022 at 15:01

5 Answers 5


Probably because most of the "good" stuff is traditionally higher/above them. Positions of power (kings, priests, gods) have usually been placed up high (altars, daises, mountaintops, pulpits). Birds, trees, fresh air, rain, light, all that comes from above.

Meanwhile, down below, you have dirt and muck and filth, worms and insects, trash, darkness. When disaster strikes, it is usually more dangerous to be further down--you'll be crushed if something falls on you. And there's the fear of the unknown: we can see through the air, but not into deep water or into dark caves (before artificial lighting).

  • Echoing my thoughts. And part about the fear of the unknown - good one!
    – Yaitzme
    Dec 3, 2014 at 9:54

To start with, Up/Down is a Metaphor. One of the big ones. And that means it's got lots of uses.
All the ones mentioned in answers here are explained on the second page of this handout.

For further details, see this article, and the works it references.
Metaphor is not just a Greek word; it's the real deal.
Metaphor is how we think. And talk.


"Up" is often associated with more of something, since if you are looking at a pile of objects, the more there are the higher up the top of the pile will be. And more is often considered better.

But with verbs like "look down", I think it has a more literal sense: a child "looks up" literally to adults, for example, so someone you look up to is someone you admire or are impressed by. This is like the metaphorical usage of "giant" to mean "a great or important person".


The assertion that up and down map to good and bad respectively isn't always true. As one example: plans can be "up in the air", meaning still uncertain, and they "settle down" as the decisions become more definite.

Beware of oversimplifying. Context matters.

(Sign in a software lab: "The uplink is down, but the downlink is up.")

  • 1
    Context does matter yes. But a majority of uses of up and down do fall into the question type.
    – Yaitzme
    Dec 3, 2014 at 9:57
  • @Yaitzme: The majority of uses of up and down indicate nothing but direction. And I'm not completely convinced that the majority of the remainder are a good fit for this question. I will grant that when they are deliberately being used as value judgements, "up" tends to be the good side, but I think the question as posed overstates that effect.
    – keshlam
    Dec 4, 2014 at 2:58
  • Up and down might by themselves be words that indicate direction. But we've taken the direction denoted by 'up' to be in a positive connotation.
    – Yaitzme
    Dec 4, 2014 at 10:04
  • Not all of us, not always; I believe you are strongly overstating the case, at least as this native speaker of American English uses the words. We agree that we disagree.
    – keshlam
    Dec 4, 2014 at 14:28

I can only imagine it relates to people looking at the stars above, e.g. the heavens and gods that ruled them above, and you go "up" to a better place when you die. The opposite is just down, e.g. hell if you sinned.

  • 3
    But which came first, hell being below and therefore "down" is "bad", or "down is bad" and therefore hell must be below?
    – Andrew Leach
    Dec 3, 2014 at 7:53
  • Sun is up -> Up is good -> Down is bad -> Hell must be below.
    – Yaitzme
    Dec 4, 2014 at 10:05

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