Downside Up

Wondering among Words 5: Upside Down

A witty and amusing post by the Polish photo blogger who calls himself Rabirius was titled ‘Upside Down’: it showed two wheelie bins side by side, one arranged the correct way and the other … not.

It got me wondering: why do we in English call topsy-turvy things ‘upside down’ and not ‘downside up’? Why the bias? And do other Western languages do the same?

A little searching brought out a mixed bag of results. Italian sottosopra reverses the English order (‘under-over’, so literally ‘downside up’) but French just has à l’envers or ‘reversed’. Dutch ondersteboven and German kopfüber are also equivalent to ‘downside up’. It’s starting to look as if English — again! — is marching in the opposite direction to the rest of Europe!

But is that the case? What about other languages in the west? In Spanish we have al revés, a similar construction to French. However, Catalan has cap per avall, perhaps translated ‘top towards the bottom’. Galacian, meanwhile, has de cabeza para baixo, very similar to Portuguese de cabeça para baixo and also meaning ‘top towards the bottom’. So English seems to largely agree with Iberian languages in this construction.

It also agrees with the Latin equivalent, sursum deorsum — which basically means ‘above below’. And guess what? In Greek άνω κάτω (áno káto) means … ‘above below’.

What about Celtic languages? Well, Welsh wyneb i waered basically means ‘face overturned’ while Irish and Scots Gaelic have bun os cionn, which I guess is ‘bottom over head’ (not quite as vulgar as ‘arse over tit’) . One, then, for upside down and the other for downside up.

Now I’ve mostly limited my forays into topsy-turvy idioms to Western Europe, so can’t vouch for equivalent idioms elsewhere in the world. Maybe you can enlighten me? Where on the face of the earth is top bottom and bottom top?*

Meanwhile, as I’m not the first to posit ‘downside up’ as a viable English collocation — songs and albums by the likes of Peter Gabriel and by Siouxsie and the Banshees have already commandeered the phrase, for example — I’m therefore tempted to substitute the phrase for ‘upside down’ at every conceivable opportunity!

Incidentally, March 25th is Lady Day, the religious feast that marks the Annunciation, nine months before the birth of Christ at Christmas. But for many centuries it also marked the beginning of the secular year in Europe and in Britain the tax year — until calendar adjustments pushed that on a few days — and for very good reason: the vernal or spring equinox was once computed to be on or about this day, a time of change and new beginnings.

And thus this furnishes my excuse — if one is needed — for discussing upside down and downside up; for what turns out to be the start of one year is also the end of another, truly a topsy-turvy time if ever there was one.


* Question for antipodean friends: from Down Under do you think of the northern hemisphere as Up Over? I’m guessing not: while Down Under has been proudly adopted in song and for titles, the smug superiority implied in Up Over would surely be too hard to bear?

11 thoughts on “Downside Up

  1. Swedish “upp och ner” meaning “up and down”. Today is also the Swedish waffle day which makes perfect sense as våfflor (waffles) sounds vaguely like vår fru (our lady) and any excuse to eat waffles will do.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. MrsB_inthehills

    There was an enjoyable episode of The West Wing once where a group of campaigners tried to persuade the administration that our conventional atlas was skewed to the advantage of the northern hemisphere countries and that we should occasionally invert the image so that the US and Canada, Europe and most of Asia were forced to confront an alternative reality – one where we weren’t the ‘top dogs’. Downside would be up…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Awe, or just plain Aw? – Calmgrove

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