I’m writing this a couple of weeks ahead of the date when it will be posted. The fourth Monday in each month is when I’m supposed to post something on this blog, but on the fourth Monday of July I’ll be pulling into my driveway, returning from a trip—a trip south.
Yes, I’m “going south,” and I’ve been wondering when and how that became a bad thing. Today we often hear “the whole operation is going south” or “then it all went south”—meaning something is turning into a disaster. But going south is always a pleasure for me, and this trip will be no different, I’m sure. My wife and I are taking our 11-year-old grandson along to my family reunion and I’m going to my 50th high school reunion, which will most likely be the topic of my August blog. We made a similar trip last year and had a ball. My grandson is a great traveling companion. I’ve considered renting him out to people who want to be able to talk about what an enjoyable trip they had with their grandchild.
So why is “going south” a bad thing, any worse than “going northeast”? How did we get so mixed up directionally? If you live in Massachusetts and go to Maine, you’re going “down east,” even though you’re actually going north (or slightly northeast). Years ago sailors leaving Boston used an east wind to sail along the coast, going “down” in their parlance. Today people going from Maine to the big city go “up to Boston,” even though Boston is south of Maine. These days if your trip “down east” proves difficult, I guess you can say it “went south.”
Most of those directional phrases have some logical basis. But “going south” as a bad thing? From what I’ve been able to dig up, the phrase “going south” in that sense originated in the mid-1970s (that may explain a lot—the decade of Watergate and leisure suits!), but it did not become common until the late ’90s. One suggestion is that it was created by people who looked at charts. A downturn on a financial chart sent the arrow down, just like South on a map.
South hasn’t always been down on a map, though. In the Middle Ages Jerusalem sat at the top of maps or in the center. Jerusalem was considered the center of the world and many passages in the Bible refer to going “up to Jerusalem,” regardless of which compass direction you were going. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher sat (and still sits) an omphalos, or a navel—a stone representing the center of the world (not to be confused with the omphalos at Delphi, which the Greeks considered the center of the world).
How we describe geography reveals a lot about history and politics. What is “the Middle East” in the middle of? In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was in the middle of Europeans’ route to the “Far East.” In those days China and Japan were “the Far East.” Today if you fly from the U. S. to Japan, which direction do you go? Exactly, you go west. From Japan’s and China’s point of view, the U. S. is now the Orient. Is your head spinning yet? So why, when you get to a new place, do you need a few minutes to get “oriented”? Why can’t you get “occidented”?
Sometimes geographical references are used as insults. As a native South Carolinian who has lived in Michigan since 1978, I’ve become aware of how people use geographical directions to put other people down. Here in Michigan, if you don’t live in Detroit, you live “outstate.” If you live in the Upper Peninsula, you consider people who live in the Lower Peninsula or south of the Mackinac Bridge “trolls,” because they live “under the bridge.”
New Yorkers are notorious for their snobbery about places that are, well, not New York. But people in other big cities have similar attitudes. In Washington, D. C., there is “inside the Beltway” and the rest of the world. Chicago claims a vast territory, from Benton Harbor, MI, across northern Indiana and up into Wisconsin as “Chicagoland.” People unfortunate enough not to live in Chicagoland live “downstate,” i. e., in the rest of Illinois. (When the United States falls apart someday, like the Roman Empire did, I predict there will arise a ruler of Chicagoland called The Daley.)
Of course, the greatest geographical insult that gets tossed around today is when people in New York and Los Angeles refer to the rest of the country as “fly-over land.” Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover so vividly portrays that attitude. You can see it here: http://strangemaps.files.wordpress.com/2007/02/steinberg-newyorker.jpg.
So, I’m going south. And that’s a good thing.