Up and down often substitute for compass directions, but you have to know when you’ve taken it too far


The official curriculum for seventh grade students in the state of Washington includes Washington history and geography. My friend the seventh grade teacher typically includes as part of this curriculum an assignment wherein each student is assigned one of the state's counties on which to produce a brief report.

It is common to substitute up and down for north and south when speaking informally, but it is also important to know when you've taken the substitution too far. One student's report on Pierce County began with the following sentence:

Pierce County is at the bottom of Puget Sound.

Comments (26)
  1. disoriented says:

    It always took some work to remember that "Upper Egypt" is at the bottom of the map. Then there’s Lower Saxony–north of Saxony, but by no means due north.

  2. Maurits says:

    It always took some work to remember that "Upper Egypt" is at the bottom of the map.

    My mnemonic: water flows downhill.

  3. Ron Parker says:

    @disoriented: Similarly, the state of Ohio has Upper Sandusky, about 50 miles southwest of Sandusky.

    (For those who are scratching their heads at this, the Nile and the Sandusky Rivers both flow northward.)

  4. Former Sounder says:

    Maybe it was not meant directionally, but rather as a ranking…

  5. Thomee Wright says:

    I was recently on an out of town trip for work, in a city about 3 hrs drive south.  Shortly after I returned, I was out running some errands and had my 3 year old son with me, when we had this conversation:

    Son: Daddy, how far do you have to drive to get under the sidewalks?

    Me: What do you mean?

    S: Well, if you drive far enough, you’ll get under the sidewalks.  How far do you have to go to do that?

    M: I don’t know.  I have no idea how to drive under the sidwalks.

    S: But mom said you did.

    M: She did?  When did she say that?

    S: She said that when you were gone, you had to go down to <other city>, and that you had to drive a long way to get there.

    Not yet being familiar with that figure of speech or maps, he took it completely literally that the other city was below ours, and I had to drive a ways to get "down" to it.

  6. Mike says:

    The town of Renton is at the southermost tip of Lake Washington.  A few years ago they were doing the "we need a city slogan/motto" thing.  Alas, "Renton, the city at the bottom of the lake" was rejected.

  7. MadQ says:

    It’s also common to use up and down depending on who is doing the traveling. As in "I’ll go up to your place." and "Come down to my place."

    And yet, non-geeks seem to have trouble grasping the difference between download and upload.

  8. Nawak says:

    MadQ:

    I therefore propose the terms "northload" and "southload", maybe non-geeks will now at last find computers easy to understand!

    See ya, I have to southload my mail now!

  9. Warll says:

    Nawak: I live in Canada, aka the North, how is this supposed to make things clearer? Is my data heading north to me aka download?

  10. Robert Morris says:

    This reminds me of the confusion some people have surrounding a common location where "Low German" is spoken: Northern Germany.

    In this case, however, it refers to the flat lands common in this area, compared to the more mountainous lands you’ll find in central and southern Germany. Still, if you’re used to informal "up" and "down" usage, it can throw you off.

  11. disoriented says:

    @Maurits: for "always", read once. Yes, I do know about Upper Egypt, Upper Canada, etc.

    @Robert Morris: But "Hochdeutsch" surely flourishes as at least as well in Brandenburg as in the Alps.

  12. Maurits says:

    The obvious solution is to move the Earth’s center of gravity to the South Pole.  This will have the convenient side effect of forcing Australians to walk on their heads, as Alice thought they would.

  13. DaveR says:

    My wife uses up for south and down for north.  Not sure why, but she is the only person I’ve met that does this.  And no, she is not from the southern hemisphere.  :)

  14. Steve D says:

    So it is probably the issue of describing places in terms of latitude versus altitude that causes the issues…

    But obviously many of the problems described in the previous posts can only be solved by the adoption of McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World.  We Aussies won’t mind… :-)

    http://www.odt.org/NewMaps.htm#Mcarthur

  15. Drak says:

    Well, I live in Noord Brabant (North Brabant, there is no South Brabant, but there is a Vlaams Brabant (Flemmish Brabant) in Belgium which is probably somewhere south of us). Noord Brabant lies in the south of the Netherlands.

    Luckily we refer to it mostly as just ‘Brabant’ because the region I live in is Brabant South-East.. Imagine the confusing term North Brabant South-East :D

  16. Drak says:

    @DaveR: Maybe she always sits at the ‘opposite’ side of the map to the person planning a route? So ‘up’ from her would be south.

  17. Morten says:

    In my home town, a little place on the coast just north of the city I currently live in, we said that we went "out to the big city", not "in to". This seems like a local feature, everywhere else I’ve been they say they’re going "in to" somewhere bigger. At least we said "down" when we meant "south".

    Also, has anybody noticed that the closer you get to a big city the smaller it gets? Example from Denmark: from several hundred kilometers away "Copenhagen" is a pretty fluffy concept encompassing most of Sealand, but when living in Copenhagen it actually refers to a very small area in the center of the city – the ‘burbs are quite distinct places for the locals. People from Valby, 3 kilometers from the city center, are empathically NOT from Copenhagen thankyouverymuch.

  18. me says:

    @disoriented:

    Interestingly, the "Lower Saxony" historically IS "Saxony". What we call Saxony (and Saxony-Anhalt) today is not where the Saxons were rooted.

    So, Saxony is just a type of "Aushilfs-Sachsen".

  19. Falcon says:

    "from several hundred kilometers away "Copenhagen" is a pretty fluffy concept encompassing most of Sealand, but when living in Copenhagen it actually refers to a very small area in the center of the city – the ‘burbs are quite distinct places for the locals."

    It’s kind of similar with Australian cities, however it seems to depend on the context. For instance, when a person is outside their home area, they may say they’re from Melbourne or Sydney etc. But between people living in the same city, they’ll be more specific and name the suburb/locality instead.

    I suppose when the target area is several hundred kilometres away (possibly >1000), a tolerance of 50km is good enough, however when it’s relatively close, greater accuracy is needed for proper perspective.

  20. James Schend says:

    Morton: of course, anybody who’s traveled has experienced that one. To a person in Washington, I’m from Snohomish. To… pretty much anybody else, I’m from Seattle. If I don’t just say "Seattle" I have to get into the whole explanation about it being north of the city but not really a suburb, etc etc. Just easier to say "Seattle."

    I haven’t yet encountered a person who doesn’t know at least vaguely where "Seattle" is… I don’t know what the next step would be. (Telling people I’m from LA?)

  21. Boris says:

    @James Schend:

    It’s lucky for you you’re in the same state. What do you say when you live in Morristown, NJ? "New York" doesn’t work, trust me. I pretty much have to just say "New Jersey". And then, if they’re smart, they will ask "what exit"? Well, it’s not. Not really. Not on the Turnpike or the Parkway at least. And nobody knows the exits on 287 (not even me…)

  22. J says:

    ‘I haven’t yet encountered a person who doesn’t know at least vaguely where "Seattle" is… I don’t know what the next step would be.’

    You’d go regional and say you’re in the northwest United States, I would guess.  You have a particular advantage being from Seattle, because you can still be pretty precise by saying that you’re the city in the very northwest corner of the U.S.

  23. Ian Johns says:

    @Steve D’s Corrective Map:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8zBC2dvERM

    last few seconds "is freakin’ me out"

  24. bill says:

    Shouldn’t it have been Thurston County?

  25. mbghtri says:

    Interestingly, one common English usage of "down" and "up" sometimes has absolutely no implied direction, as in "driving down the road" or "walking up the street".

  26. DWalker59 says:

    A friend of mine could send e-mail from the computer that he had upstairs in his house, but couldn’t send from the downstairs one.  He could receive at the downstairs computer but not at the upstairs computer.

    Clearly, it was a problem with the bits wanting to go downhill and not uphill.  He gleefully told me that this was his conclusion.  (He is a mathematician and computer programmer, and knows better.)

Comments are closed.