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I'm pondering the expression, "Up the creek without a paddle". It's supposed to be expressing an awkward situation with no easy way out. But as a very literal person who has paddled on a creek, when you're upstream you can just sit and let the current take you back to where you were. However, if you are downstream without a paddle, then you're in serious trouble, because if you can't paddle back up the creek, it's going to keep taking you further downstream.

So why in the English language to we say "up the creek" instead of "down the creek"? Does it have something to do with where the expression originates? When people said up the creek what exactly were they referring to? Did they mean literally upstream, or was "up" a cardinal direction like "uptown" and "downtown"?

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  • It possibly has a British naval origin. Sep 14, 2021 at 18:27
  • The key word is up and the creek in question is the keester. So stick it but without a stick. What shall we use? Sep 14, 2021 at 18:44
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    Anything that claims a naval origin is immediately suspect. The OED records "up the creek" first in 1941: c. up the creek: (a) in a tight corner, in trouble; spec. pregnant; (b) crazy, eccentric. slang. 1941 Arthur Miller in Kozlenko "100 Radio Plays" 22/2 I mean that if I'm killed you're up the creek. -- shit and without a paddle are mere intensifiers.
    – Greybeard
    Sep 14, 2021 at 19:03
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    Creeks are often stagnant or marshy or coastal: look in British dictionaries.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 14, 2021 at 20:29
  • It doesn't matter which part of the creek your boat is in, if you don't have a paddle you are not in control of the situation.
    – nnnnnn
    Sep 15, 2021 at 1:12

2 Answers 2

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However, if you are downstream without a paddle, then you're in serious trouble, because if you can't paddle back up the creek, it's going to keep taking you further downstream.

So why in the English language do we say "up the creek" instead of "down the creek"?

You have misunderstood the analogy.

Your job was to go all the way up the creek.

You now cannot go up the creek because you do not have a paddle.

A problem has arisen that means that you cannot accomplish your goal.

You are in trouble.

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Have a look at this great writeup on World Wide Words which discusses several possible origins of the phrase.

One suggestion is an evolution of the phrase "something up the creek":

There are mildly tantalising earlier appearances in US newspapers. In 1915, a report quoted a local councillor: “there is something rotten up the creek”; a letter in 1901 argued “there was something dead up the creek”; one from 1896 scathingly referred to “the boys up the creek”.

Being up the creek perhaps meant to be in the more rural and less savoury areas or it could be taken to mean that something bad upstream was affecting the downstream.

Another theory is that it comes from

"to be up Salt River", which sometimes appeared as "up Salt Creek".

This phrase was historically used for political defeat. The Wikipedia article discusses its origin:

"one of those threats which in Georgia dialect would subject a man to 'a rowing up salt river'."

which meant to beat someone up.

"Without a paddle" and the more vulgar version are discussed as later variants to emphasize the phrase.

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    My father used to say (and write) 'up the Swanee', as I do now (no paddles, or their lack, mentioned). I believe the correct spelling is 'Suwanee' (in Georgia USA) Sep 14, 2021 at 19:39
  • @MichaelHarvey It does seem that the actual river is the Suwanee but the Steven Foster song refers to The Swanee River. Also the slide whistle, presumably named from the song in some way, is called a Swanee Whistle. I do wonder whether "up the Swanee" is a euphemism for "up Shit Creek" and that the latter is the older expression. "Up the Swanee" does seem to be of similar vintage to other euphemisms and minced oaths such as "bother", "blow", "by Jiminy" and so on. I wonder whether "up Shit Creek", was always an expression of the lower orders and, therefore, never recorded in print.
    – BoldBen
    Sep 15, 2021 at 8:16

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