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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 alter?

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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). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 17 '15 at 11:31
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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 Jan 17 '15 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 Jan 17 '15 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 Jan 17 '15 at 19:20
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    It was true in the Baptist church I attended 60 years ago in Louisville Kentucky, and it's true of the Lutheran church I attend now in Rochester Minnesota. These are both moderately large (but far from "mega") churches. And it's true to at least a degree of several smaller churches in the Rochester area (though others are pretty flat). Note that they all do (or did -- haven't been in the Louisville one in years) have an elevated stage at front, but, where the floor is not flat, the rear of the sanctuary generally has an elevation higher than this stage. But styles certainly vary broadly. – Hot Licks Jan 17 '15 at 22:28
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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.

  • 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 Jan 17 '15 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. – FumbleFingers Jan 17 '15 at 21:04
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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.

  • Up the aisle [with her father] to the alter, down the aisle with her husband, when married. – NeilB Nov 2 at 17:37
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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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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.

  • You can restrict Google ngrams to look at British or American sources only. – Colin Fine Jan 17 '15 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. – TRomano Jan 17 '15 at 11:46
  • @TRomano Arguably, British books being read (in original UK style) in the US counts as US usage. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 17 '15 at 12:17
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    @Edwin Ashworth: and arguably not :-) If we eat Camembert, is it an American cheese? – TRomano Jan 17 '15 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). – Edwin Ashworth Jan 17 '15 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 Jan 6 '18 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.) – green_ideas Jan 6 '18 at 23:27

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