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What Does It Mean If Things "Go South"?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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The English idiom “go south” has a distinct meaning related to something going wrong or worsening. For instance, an English speaker may say that a deal is about to “go south,” meaning it is headed toward failure, or that profits are “going south” meaning that profits are decreasing. Speakers might also use the alternate phrase “heading south,” for instance, saying that efforts at reviving a company or product seem to be “heading south,” or dwindling.

Generally, the use of this idiom is a somewhat lighter way to talk about negative trends. It can be substituted for harsher language with words like “terrible,” “dire,” or “catastrophic.” By contrast, if someone hears someone say that something is “going south” or might “go south,” the listener usually gets the sense of urgency, but the potential negative result seems somehow not quite as bad as it might be.

In terms of the origin of this phrase, word historians have some pretty interesting thoughts on why English speakers have started to use the phrase. One idea is that profits or sales numbers are good when they rise toward the top of a chart, and bad when they flow toward the bottom. When the chart is placed on the wall, worsening numbers can seem to be, in effect, heading southward in comparison to the normal orientation of a map. An additional explanation of this phrase, which seems largely to be an American term, is the idea that after the American Civil War, the South seemed to be associated with negatives, at least form the perspective of Northerners, though few other idioms exist to support this notion.

When looking at the history of the phrase, linguists can see that, in older times, British English speakers did not use the phrase “go south” and instead referred to a worsening situation “going west.” Explanations for this include the idea that the sun sets in the west, as well as stories of prisoners from London traditionally heading west to the gallows. Over time, the American form of the phrase, “going south,” seems to have dominated the other. One reason that this might have happened is that in America, largely through historic quotes like “Go west, young man!” the west has been associated with positives, not negatives. This has led to the phrase “going south” becoming a familiar one to the majority of English speakers around the world; perhaps oddly, "going north" is not typically used to indicate an improvement of circumstances.

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Discussion Comments
By DylanB — On Aug 30, 2012

@JessicaLynn – I live in the South, but I'm not offended by this phrase. I don't think it is referring to the geographic area in which I live.

I don't fly a Confederate flag, and I don't have any resentment toward the North for the war that was fought long before I was even born. I really don't think that anyone around here would take offense to this phrase, because it is so common, and as with many other phrases, we have lost the original meaning, anyway.

By seag47 — On Aug 30, 2012

I've always thought that since south on a map is down, the expression “go South” meant going down. People associated down with all sorts of bad things, like hell and being dead and buried.

By Azuza — On Aug 02, 2011

@JessicaLynn - British English and American English have many funny differences. My mom used to work with a lady from the UK a few years ago and they were always having a laugh over silly language differences.

My favorite story happened right after my moms friend moved here from the UK. Now, keep in mind in the UK a "pecker" is your chin and I think we all know what "pecker" is slang for here in the US. Once one of my moms friends male coworkers was feeling a little sad so she told him to "keep his pecker up" and she just couldn't understand what was funny about that!

The difference between "going south" and "going west" definitely isn't very entertaining compared to that!

By JessicaLynn — On Aug 02, 2011

I'm always amazed at the little difference between British and American English. "Going south" versus "going west" is just one more example!

I think it's very interesting how phrases like this develop. I personally think it's kind of funny that going south may be a civil war reference. I wonder if people that live in the south get offended when someone says the phrase "going south?" I know some people down there still fly the Confederate flag and talk about the "War of Northern Aggression" so I wouldn't doubt it!

By letshearit — On Aug 01, 2011

I've noticed over the past few years that a lot of people are taking the phrase "go south" and returning it to its original meaning. A lot of travel agencies are naming themselves after this once popular idiom, returning the phrase to its purely geographic origins.

There are a few sites online that even have fun playing with the idiom to advertise travel destinations saying things like, "Going south doesn't have to be all bad."

I think that a lot of phrases in the English language go in and out of fashion with their usage. I rarely hear anyone use "go south" as a negative thing anymore.

By lonelygod — On Jul 31, 2011

I have used the expression "go south" quite a few times and it is interesting to read about its origins. I always wondering why it was used in such a pessimistic fashion. For some reason I always pictured a business graph with profits and the little line dropping down, down, down when I heard some say something was going south.

My old boss used to love ranting how things were going south whenever we had to promote a new product in a way he didn't think would work. He hated flashy marketing and always wanted to keep thing simple and straight forward. Most of what we did at work was far from that.

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