Does anyone know from whence (or where) this phrase originated? I tried searching the archives, but no luck.
I doubt it can be traced exactly.
South is the same as “down” in so many contexts, that it’s an obvious concept.
For example, here’s the very first definition I found of “south” on http://m-w.com (Merriam-Webster)
Main Entry: 1south
Etymology: Middle English, from Old English suth; akin to Old High German sund- south and probably to Old English sunne sun
Date: before 12th century
1 : to, toward, or in the south
2 : into a state of decline or ruin <causes the sluggish economy to go south – G. F. Will>
Merriam-Webster is the only dictionary that has that definition, by the way. Or at least the only one of the ones I checked, which include Webster’s, American Heritage, and the OED.
I was really surprised not to find it in the OED, although it’s possible that I just missed it – we have the compact edition and I lost the magnifying glass that goes with it. People, there are five columns devoted to the word “south”. I think I lost a full diopter of vision while looking this damn thing up.
All this is probably not very helpful.
I’m not sure what a diopter is. I’d look it up, but even I can’t see any more. Looks like I checked all the same places both of you suggested…at least until my vision “went South”.
I wasn’t looking for the originator of the phrase (although if there is one, that would’ve been nice), just a general idea of how the phrase got started. Thanks for your responses.
FWIW, “diopter” refers to the numbers that the optometrist rights on your prescription for eyeglasses. Losing a full diopter would require a new pair of glasses. Or a lot of squinting.
Robert McCammon wrote a book named “Gone South”. In it he claimed that the expression originated in the military. I’m not sure of the full history of the expression, however it does seem to be used by military types more often than by average citizens.
In case you’re not clear on the meaning of the expression, it means virtually dead. The expression refered to shell-shocked soldiers that, while still walking, might as well be dead and were almost certainly destined to be dead in the very near future… The implication is that ‘south’ is dead and buried and ‘gone south’ is on your way there.
As to when, McCammon implied that the expression originated in Vietnam, but I know a guy who served in Korea that claims that they used the expression, as well.
Could there be a link to the days of slavery in the U.S. when troublesome slaves were said to have been “sold South” or perhaps “gone South”? IIRC, this ment sent to the suger cane fields in the far Southern U.S. or Cuba. Supposed to have been a virtual death sentance.
No cites, this comes from reading novels set in that time period.
Here’s one definition from the OED (I have access to the full on-line version, MsWhatsit):
That connects south with business decline pretty far back, but I don’t know the origin of “South Jeopardy.” This references Francis Grose’s The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tounge (originally published in 1785), so if anyone has a copy, they might check there for the origin.
American Heritage also has the definition that M-W does:
In medical lingo, when patient “goes south” they have taken a drastic change for the worse and aren’t improving despite any and all interventions.