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Nigel Rees, The Cassell Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1987) has this entry regarding the question "WHY DO WE SAY ... BRIDES GO UP THE AISLE?"

Sir Thomas Bazley fired off a letter to The Times in July 1986: "Sir, You report that Miss Sarah Ferguson will go up the aisle to the strains of Elgar's 'Imperial March'. Hitherto, brides have always gone up the nave. Yours faithfully ..."

Quite right, of course. The nave is the main route from the west door of a church to the chancel and altar; the aisles are the parallel routes at the sides of a church, separated from the nave by pillars.

Nevertheless, the phrase 'up the aisle' in connection with weddings holds strong. Could it be that the assonance of the 'i' sound in 'bride' and 'aisle' has something to do with people preferring the inaccurate to the accurate?

But I'm less concerned about the question of aisle versus nave than with the question of up versus down. Rees's discussion surprised me because he takes for granted that brides go up (not down) the aisle to the altar. There are certainly published examples where this direction is identified. For example, from Lady Helen Forbes, It's a Way They Have in the Army (1905):

The brides always look "handsome," or at least "charming," before the ceremony, and "radiant" after it ; and there is something especially touching in the "bevy" of beautiful young creatures who follow her up the aisle (each, of course, hoping it may be the last time that she will have to play second fiddle instead of first at a wedding, and wishing that it were true that one marriage always leads to others). The bride "leans on the arm of her father," she never drags him up the aisle out of step; and the bridegroom "makes his responses in a manly voice," but does not mumble them haltingly after the clergyman.

All my life, I've understood that the bride walks down the aisle to be married. Not surprisingly, there are examples in support of this direction, as well. For example, from Nancy Piccone, Your Wedding: A Complete Guide to Planning and Enjoying It (1982) [combined snippets]:

The bride must decide whether to take her father's left or right arm; if she takes his right, he will not have to cross behind her to return to his pew on the left side of the church, and this will facilitate matters. However, the bride may ask both of her parents to escort her *****, one on each side. Or the bride and groom may decide to walk down the aisle hand in hand. If the bride's father is deceased, she may ask an uncle, her brother, a close relative, or her mother to accompany her down the aisle.

And from Charlotte Ford, Etiquette: Charlotte Ford's Guide to Modern Manners (1988) [combined snippets]:

The Processional

In a formal wedding, the bride walks down the aisle on the arm of her father (if the bride's father is dead, she may choose her brother, a favorite uncle, or a close family friend to walk with her down the aisle), preceded by her flower girl or ring bearer. The maid or matron of honor precedes the flower girl, and the bridesmaids and ushers lead the processional. The bride meets the groom, the best man, and the clergyman, who have appeared as if by magic at the front of the church.

Of course, if you walk up the aisle to get to the altar, you presumably have to walk down the aisle to leave the church as a newlywed. And vice versa if you've walked down the aisle on your way in.

My questions are:

  1. Is there a split in idiomatic preference between British English on the one hand (favoring "up the aisle") and U.S. English on the other (favoring "down the aisle")?

  2. Has there been any general shift in recent years toward favoring "down the aisle" over "up the aisle" (or vice versa), regardless of which type of English we're talking about?

  3. Which idiom is older in this particular sense—"up the aisle" or "down the aisle"?

  4. Which is the more common idiom today for describing brides heading toward the altar?

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    @AndrewLeach I think that’s regional. If it’s your own local street, and you’re referring to a shop that’s on the same street, but closer to the perceived ‘start’ of the street (an intersection, based on house numbers, etc.), I would think it perfectly natural to say the shop is “a bit further up the street”. Up to me means more ‘towards the important part’ than ‘physically upward’. Similarly up the aisle to me focuses more on the goal (altar), while down the aisle focuses more on the path taken (along the length of the aisle itself). Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 11:31
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    Brides actually walk along the nave (central promenade) of a church. The aisle are the regions to the left and right of the pews inchurch architectural terms. Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 12:42
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    It is common, in large Protestant churches (in the US, at least), for the floor of the sanctuary to be sloped towards the alter. So unless the bride is fleeing, she's going down the aisle. And "down the aisle" is what I mostly recall hearing.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 13:50
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    @JamesMcLeod While aisles are the architectural features along the sides of the nave, the word aisle also applies to the central passage between the seats in the nave of a church.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 14:19
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    @FrancisDavey - Which is likely a physical reason for a difference between the US and British terminology.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 19:20

8 Answers 8

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The estimated results from Google Books are remarkably similar...

up the aisle to the altar - about 11,200 results
down the aisle to the altar - about 11,800 results

...but I think there's evidence of a slight US/UK split here. Americans invariably use toward where Brits use towards, so I think these results for AmE usage are significant...

up the aisle toward the altar - about 830 results
down the aisle toward the altar - about 1,700 results

The typical BrE versions of this form show no such preference...

up the aisle towards the altar - about 450 results
down the aisle towards the altar - about 423 results


As mentioned by others, there's also evidence from NGrams that both prepositions were equally popular until about a century ago, since when down has become increasingly preferred. If you check the AmE and BrE corpuses in that link, you'll see this usage shift is much more apparent in the former.

I wouldn't like to say what percentage of those results could reasonably be called "idiomatic" (i.e. - "When are you going to take her up/down the aisle?" = "When are you going to marry her?"), but I'd guess that wouldn't often apply to any versions involving ...toward/s the altar.

Personally I've no particular preference for either version (whether used idiomatically/figuratively or literally). It's no different to "He lives just up/down the road from me", which I see as freely interchangeable in contexts where there's no obvious change in "elevation above sea level" between our two houses.

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  • Nicely done, FumbleFingers. I struggled to devise a way to winnow the Google Books search results down to church- (if not marriage-) specific cases and to work out a plausible U.S. English/British English split in wording—and couldn't think of anything appropriate. You seem to have come up with a way to do both. Very resourceful!
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 20:24
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    @Sven: Thank you. I saw Edwin had commented "it's an American usage" (possibly talking about metaphorically eating Camembert rather than going up/down the aisle), so I approached the "US/UK split" with an open mind (both "directions" seem unremarkable to me as a Brit). But the toward/towards distinction seemed more likely to be accurate than using Google Books US/UK categorisations, which aren't always reliable. Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 21:04
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    Americans don't all use toward; there's a small fraction who use towards. So this may mean that Brits actually favor down the aisle. Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 20:46
  • @PeterShor: Well, if anyone in present company is qualified to say whether some sampled figures are objectively significant, that'll obviously be you! (Me, I just look for things that superficially seem to support whatever prejudice / bandwagon I happen to be preoccupied with at the time! :) Anyway, this chart suggests that Brits very slightly favoured up the aisle until about a century ago, after which we started to fall in line with AmE usage. Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 0:30
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There is a marked preference for down the aisle. See this ngram: (bride up the aisle),(bride down the aisle)

I get zero hits for 'bride up the aisle' in British English.

I'm thinking of the phrases "walked|accompanied|brought|took the bride ___ the aisle".

And there's a marked preference for down the aisle generally: * the aisle.

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  • Up the aisle [with her father] to the alter, down the aisle with her husband, when married.
    – NeilB
    Commented Nov 2, 2019 at 17:37
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According to Ngram, "down the aisle" passed "up the aisle" in frequency of usage in the 1890s. Since then, usage of "up the aisle" has actually increased somewhat, but usage of "down the aisle" has increased more than fourfold.

Of course, I have no idea what proportion of these mentions had to do with brides, nor to what extent Google Books's corpus might favor American sources over British.

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  • You can restrict Google ngrams to look at British or American sources only.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 11:42
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    But that restriction seems less than reliable, in my experience. I've found British books in searches restricted to American English.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 11:46
  • @TRomano Arguably, British books being read (in original UK style) in the US counts as US usage. Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 12:17
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    @Edwin Ashworth: and arguably not :-) If we eat Camembert, is it an American cheese?
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 12:35
  • No; it's an American usage. Without going into fine detail (and obviously adopting a practice is way beyond seeing that practice employed, via accepting it as correct / equally correct and then in some way desirable) the fact that UK books appear in a US-based corpus could well indicate a certain level of acceptance. Some people's practices are then almost always adjusted (a lot of Americanisms are now established usages over here, thanks mainly to films (er, movies) / TV / the internet). So the searches may not be as inaccurate as you imply (though I'm sure they're not fully representative). Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 12:53
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Sorry I'm so late to the conversation.

The bride walks UP the aisle with her father, because the altar is viewed as the place of the presence of the LORD. God is always on higher ground than we are. Such a meeting place between God and man where major covenants take place is typically a mountaintop. (Moses at Sinai, Abraham at Moriah, Jesus at Jerusalem)

Because the marriage covenant includes God as the ultimate initiator, protector, witness, and judge of the couple, they stand before him to take their vows and receive his blessing. Hence, they have traveled up the mountain into his presence, and walk DOWN together. Throughout the course of their marriage, they may periodically point to their vows as the "high road" to stick to, never the "low road."

Many of the reasons why we do the things we do have been forgotten.

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    Hello and welcome to EL&U. +1 for the 'notionally higher ground' justification for 'up'. Do you have any explanation for the popularity of 'down' used in the same context? It may be that a different metaphor is employed there.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 13:41
  • It can be down or up the aisle, depending on the usage of the speaker. Your high ground examples are fine–although they're theologically, not 100% linguistically informed; but someone could still say, or text, the bride is coming down the aisle. (As an aside, sort of, We go down to the river to be baptized.) Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 23:27
  • @ArmthegoodguysinAmerica This is a bit late to the party, but rivers are always down. Altars, on the other hand, are usually up.
    – Conrado
    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 13:29
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It may be that "down the aisle" has taken the lead because "up" anything can be construed as rude. We live in a time where profanity is much more common and socially acceptable, and therefore, if you say "up" something, people aren't sure if you're attempting a double entendre. (Or, not... but it makes sense to me.) (US)

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Up the nave of course, just as one goes up to London by train from everywhere in Britain. Up towards the chancel and altar whether high or not. Many country churches in England have no aisles, only a central nave. Cordoba cathedral has seven aisles having started life as a mosque.

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    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 7:18
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Looking at it logistically instead of esthetically, most theater style settings where many seats are aimed toward a central area, the seating in the back is physically higher so the aisle would slope down toward the front. I believe the reason down the aisle has increased is because there is either a more realistic perception of things (good), or maybe less imaginative view of things (sad). One interesting search from yourdictionary.com states "Up the aisle" means "towards getting married" and, from cambridge.org "Down the aisle" means "to get married".

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  • I'm not aware of many sloping aisles in churches. Commented Apr 15 at 18:24
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I had concluded that "take her up the aisle", equating to "marry her" was conclusive - the altar at the top. It seemed right.

Then I started to overthink this and wondered if "take her up the aisle" referred to the act of leaving the church as a married couple. After all, just arriving at the altar is no indication that a marriage ceremony is successfully completed!

I'm dismissing this idea... too complicated. But I'll leave it here in case it inspires!

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