I have heard various terms to describe one's travels East. Some people say, "I am going out East." Others say, "I'm going back East." Still others say, "I'm going down East." Which is correct?

  • 2
    If you're from the West and living there, you'd say "out east*. If you're from the East and currently residing in the West, you'd say "back east". If you're a Mainer making a self-deprecating pun, you'd say "down east" (it's a reference to rural Mainers, composed in jocular analogy with the phrase "down South" to refer to rural Southerners, aka hillbillies).
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 16:12
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    I don't know why someone has voted to close. I am a British native speaker of English. This usage seems to be from the USA. I'd be interested to know the answer. In Britain the East and the West are a lot closer than they are in the US! Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 16:13
  • Yeah, I don't know what the close-vote is about either. Maybe someone wants to see more evidence of personal research?
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 16:15
  • @DanBron I'd vote up that answer. Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 16:36
  • yep, it's all idiomatic. Perhaps the "correct" one is "I'm going east" or "I'm traveling eastward" if the route is of more interest than the destination.
    – vstrong
    Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 16:59

1 Answer 1


In American English, it is conventional to refer to broad geographic directions of the country as up north, down south, back east, and out west. It is by no means required to use these pairings, if context explains why someone is moving back south (e.g. returning to your childhood home in Alabama) or up west (e.g. from eastern Colorado to the Front Range). Moreover, these should be understood more as directions and not necessarily regions; one can relocate up north from New Orleans to Chicago, even though Chicago is geographically in the Midwest, and there are many cities farther north.

The up and down for north and south are easily explained by their traditional positions on maps. The notion of back east and out west reflect the pattern of Anglophone settlement, which began on the Atlantic seaboard.

The sense of relocating out to some place is of venturing forth from the norm; consider any of the first three senses AHD gives:

  1. In a direction away from the inside
  2. Away from the center or middle
  3. a. Away from a usual place

On the other hand, moving back is a return to some place:

  1. In, to, or toward a former location
  2. In, to, or toward a former condition

The usual pattern from the colonial era through to the mid-20th century was for people in the eastern part of the country to move west; the mean center of population of the United States has moved west with every single decennial census, so it is natural that moving back east and moving out west would be more common patterns than moving back west or moving out east, as you can see in this NGram of AmE from the closing of the frontier to the present:

Google NGram showing prevalence of "moving back east" and "moving out west" in AmE

Down is a separate matter, as it has the conventional modern sense of somewhere lower (hence downtown, referring to the direction towards the southern end of Manhattan Island) or somewhere away (hence downcountry and down to the shore, and in Baltimore, down the ocean), but also some idiomatic uses that make sense if you consider the destinations to be some place away from a "center," especially the Mid-Atlantic*.

  1. down east (U.S.): into or in the eastern sea-coast districts of New England, esp. Maine. Also as adj.n. Hence down-easter n. Also transf.

  2. down south adv. into or in the south; in U.S. down the Mississippi; into or in the Southern States.

Now, there are a number of alternative explanations given for the origins of down east to refer to Maine and the Canadian maritimes. The popular theory is that it refers to areas that were downwind from Boston and other ports, and since ships sailed with the wind, there was no need for any up west counterpart. But down east also corresponds to moving away from the ports to the east, and given the geography of Cape Cod, it is not possible to sail in any other direction. Wikipedia posits a relationship to measures of longitude, but it is uncited, and I think this explanation spurious.

* By Mid-Atlantic I mean in the historical sense of the region between New York and Philadelphia, not the modern sense of the region around Washington, D.C. The designation of an area rather north as Mid-, and the shift of that term over the last few decades to include Virginia and even North Carolina, is I think a neat illustration of where America's "center" has been shifting.

Depending on what you intend to express, then, back east, out east, and down east are all perfectly acceptable, if not always interchangeable.

  • I thought down east was a New England idiom, and the down came from downwind. (Consider the idioms up-island for west and down-island for east on Martha's Vineyard.) It sounds like you're attributing it to the New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania area. Are you? Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 18:36

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