General Question

occ's avatar

where did the phrase "go south" or "went south" come from?

Asked by occ (4007 points ) February 25th, 2008

In the context of “it went south” meaning, “something went wrong.” what’s the origin of that phrase

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9 Answers

Schenectandy's avatar

In the northern-hemisphere chauvinist’s view, south=down idiomatically. Couple that with a “more is more” culture, and you have the implication that any move in the downward direction equals a decrease and therefore must be bad.

…If sundials were invented in the southern hemisphere, ‘clockwise’ would be the opposite way too!

bob's avatar

The mother tongue blog suggest a few possibilities: that the phrase originated in the US, “going South” refers to either fleeing to Mexico or Texas to escape the law and/or fleeing the North during the Civil War.

soundedfury's avatar

There is no etymological support for Schenectandy’s view, as the phrase “gone south” has changed meaning a couple of times since its first recorded instance. It originally meant “to disappear, vanish or skip town,” often by going south to Mexico or Texas. It has morphed over time to its current meaning.

Schenectandy's avatar

yeah I was just conjecturing.. it sure had truthiness though!

Arglebargle_IV's avatar

I used the phrase “headed south” to refer to a bathroom fixture that was falling through the floor. (South as euphemism for down) Nonetheless the pejorative (sp?) connotation persists… mostly I agree with Schenectandy and soundedfury: I’d caution using this phrase casually for these connotations can be misunderstood.

fundevogel's avatar

I think it originally referred to a statement General Sherman made after his tour of the southerly States of America.

oh wait, I though you meant the other meaning…nevermind.

pastorv's avatar

Abraham went south into Egypt (Genesis 12:9.10). This was a tragic disobedience which caused Abraham to lie to Pharaoh, brought forth an Egyptian concubine (Hagar), an Egyptian wife for Lot, and created a hunger in Lot that ultimately destroyed his family (Genesis 13:10). Isaac started the same pattern (going South instead of staying put) in Genesis 26:1 and was warned by God in Genesis 26:2, “Go not down into Egypt….” Isaac dwelt as far South as he could in Gerar and fell into the same sin as his father Abraham. Jacob went down into Egypt and his children became slaves for 400 years. South is the direction that Egypt is from the Promised Land and it generally brought trouble to God’s people when they went there. These are some of the first historical associations (if not the first) with the direction, “South.”

Kardamom's avatar

I always thought it was about Hell, because the direction of south is down on a standard map, and Hell is considered down or under the earth.

82vettedriver's avatar

Term “Gone South.” Post WWII, Werner Von Braun and several other German scientists were moved to Ft Bliss Texas to continue research on missile warfare that they had begun under Nazi Germany. (US and Russia each took certain scientists almost like dividing the spoils of war.) Anyway, the scientists that were located at Ft Bliss continued research performing tests and launches in the vast White Sands Missile Range that lies directly north. As long as the missiles performed as designed, they could fly very high and far because the range extends northward over two hundred miles. However, as could be expected, sometimes missile tests would produce failure. The worst of which would be flying instead of north, but south. During at least 1 test, (at least 1 publicly acknowledged test), the missile flew directly south crossing the Rio Grande and landing in Juarez Mexico. To the scientists and the Army, the test went “South” instead of north. Any other failure type would create little to no damage within the bounds of the vast missile range but all involved knew that for every test, they had to make sure it didn’t go south. The term became jargon of the day when to refer to a test as having “Gone South” meant that everything was fine until that sudden moment when all went wrong; as when the missile flew south instead of north!

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