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I've never heard of this idiom before today and thought it was an especially curious one. What's the origin of calling the cheap seats the nosebleed seats at the theater?

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    Aside: In cinema theatres in India, it's the seats closest to the movie screen (which make you crane your neck the whole time) that are cheapest, and are affectionately known as "Gandhi class". (Gandhi always travelled third-class in trains, and when asked why, he would say "Because there's no fourth class".) – ShreevatsaR Jul 12 '11 at 17:45
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    Also not to be confused with the nosebleed section at a music concert; directly at the front, where you're so tightly packed that you'll get a nosebleed every time someone jostles past you to get a better position. – Dexter Jul 12 '11 at 20:19
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The idea is that the seats are so high up that you will get a nosebleed from the altitude (i.e. the air is so much thinner). It is an example of hyperbole.

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    This. It came into more common usage when sports arenas started being built to handle 100k people or more; in such cases, calling the upper area of the upper deck the "nosebleed section" doesn't sound so much like hyperbole. – KeithS Jul 12 '11 at 14:30
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    Could be so close to the action you will get a nosebleed if the players hit you ;) – mplungjan Jul 12 '11 at 14:49
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    @mplungian: At a hockey game, any seat is potentially in the nosebleed section. ^_^ – Robusto Jul 12 '11 at 15:00
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    @Robusto - Whereas at a NASCAR event, any seat is potentially in the decapitation section. – T.E.D. Jul 12 '11 at 15:14
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    Also see Wikipedia re nosebleed section, which says, "The phrases nosebleed section and nosebleed seats are applied tongue-in-cheek to those seats of a public arena, usually an athletic stadium or gymnasium, that are highest and, usually, farthest from the desired activity." Note, however, it also says "At the opposite extreme, the "nosebleed section" in a club refers to the very front of the venue, the most active part of the mosh pit, where accidental collisions can make nosebleeds common." – James Waldby - jwpat7 Sep 22 '11 at 23:25
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It's an exaggeration of the altitude of said seats. High altitude can cause nose bleeds in some people.

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Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) has this entry for nosebleed as an adjective:

nosebleed adj (1978) extremely or excessively high {seats in the nosebleed section} {nosebleed stock prices}."

The two earlier answers to the posted question make clear the physiological connection between nosebleeds and high altitude—and the hyperbolic association between (for example) inexpensive seats in the upper reaches of a sports stadium, theater, or other venue and heightened risk of incurring a nosebleed.

Since the posted question asks specifically about the origin of nosebleed used in this sense. I checked to see whether any instances of this usage occurred in print before 1978. The answer is yes: published instances go back at least to 1974.

From Betty Cuniberti, "Baseball Comes Out of Hibernation," in the San Bernardino [California] Sun-Telegram (March 30, 1974):

Baseball fans are crazy, I tell you. And they're everywhere. Even in Cleveland.

They are easily recognizable by the mustard on their shirts and the argument on the tips of their tongues.

They live in the nosebleed sections of all baseball stadiums and have radios growing out of their ears. Their pockets are full of peanut shells.

This instance of nosebleed as an adjective makes the same exaggeration-based joke that is implicit in the Eleventh Collegiate's definition—and therefore perfectly anticipates subsequent usage.

Also, from Ramon Cooklis, "Fun and Games (also Music) at Hollywood Bowl," again in the San Bernardino [California] Sun-Telegram (September 2, 1978):

It's amazing what people come to the Bowl for. From the bourgeois elegance of a candlelight-and-linen picnic dinner in the boxes to the plebian pleasures of hot dogs and beer in the bleachers, you can eat. You can come to observe the crowd or be observed. Up in the dollar seats of Nosebleed Alley, you can guzzle wine, sleep, or engage in various amorous pursuits for several hours.

Evidently, an area of inexpensive, far-from-the-action seats in the Hollywood Bowl was popularly known as "Nosebleed Alley" by 1978, suggesting that the joke about "nosebleed seats" was already widely known at that date. Such informal names are fairly common in connection with performance arenas. For example, Charter Hill, which overlooks the University of California's football stadium in Berkeley, California, has for decades be known as Tightwad Hill because people who climb it on a game day can then watch the game for free.

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    Should anyone care ... The reason your nose bleeds at these altitudes is due to low atmospheric pressure. At this low pressure, the percentage of water vapor in air is the same, but the overall total amount of water is below normal for sea level. Same goes for oxygen. Rapid breathing of dry air contributes to dry nasal passages. Low extramural pressure, likely also causes expansion of vessels (think of bags of chips on an airplane) exacerbating the problem. – David M Oct 9 at 22:22
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GDoS has early usages from mid-20th century:

Nose-bleed:

also nosebleeder, nosebleed seats [also used fig.; the nosebleeds that can accompany oxygen deprivation]

(US) of seating, very high up, esp. in an auditorium or sports stadium; also as n.

  • 1948 Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY) 25 Nov. 25/2: George Solotaire, the ticket broker [...] was asked by a customer for seats in the second balcony. ‘’, Solotaire replied, ‘do not handle nose-bleeders’.

  • 1950E. Wilson 8 Feb. [synd. col.] HGentleman Georgie Solotaire describes balcony seats in theaters as ‘nose-bleeders’.

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